5 February 1957
"That's the last of it!" Patrick declared as he dropped the final box on the floor, trying his best to sound cheerful. The effort was wasted; Timothy just stared up at him, baleful and tired, no trace of a smile on his little face. Not that Patrick could blame his son for his lack of enthusiasm; the new flat was terribly cramped, and the jumbled boxes that contained the sum total of their worldly belongings made navigating the small space all but impossible. Still, though, this was to be their home, and Patrick, at least, was determined to make the best of it.
"It'll be all right, Tim, you'll see," he told the boy, reaching out to ruffle his hair. "Once we've unpacked these boxes, it'll feel more like home."
"This isn't home," Timothy protested at once. "I want to go home, dad. I don't want to live here."
And what could Patrick possibly say to that? How could he explain to his nine year old son the many reasons why he'd decided to come here, to abandon his position at the hospital and go into general practice, to move them across the city to this derelict and crumbling quarter of London Tim had never seen before? How could he possibly tell his son that he had sold their family home because he could not bear to sleep in that place without Marianne beside him any longer? Tim missed his mother something terrible, Patrick knew, but his own feelings were rather harder to articulate, and too heavy a burden for him to place on his child.
"You'll be happy here, I promise. You know, I was born in Poplar," he said, trying to make it sound reasonable, though the words were heavy and bitter in his mouth. Born here, raised here, got the hell out of here as soon as I could. It had been the strangest sort of déjà vu, driving down those old familiar streets, past Nonnatus House, past the haberdasher's, past the shop that had once belonged to his father. Voices seemed to call at him from the dim recesses of his memory; oi, Pat, those old ghosts used to say, bring us the paper and tell Bill I want to talk to him about the horses, there's a good lad. Twenty years since he'd last been here, and nothing had changed. The streets were the same, the expressions of the people walking along the pavement were the same; he was certain that if he dared step inside the pub he'd find old Bill and Peter Winkler and Declan McCready sitting at the bar with a faint pall of smoke hanging over their heads, arguing about the horses. Poplar was a place out of time, as steady and predictable as the rising of the sun, but Patrick himself had been changed so completely in his absence that he found himself wondering, not for the first time, if he was a fool for coming back here. It was an insular community; the people here looked after their own, and Patrick had turned his back on them. Could he really expect them to welcome him with open arms?
"I wasn't," Timothy grumbled.
No, Patrick's son had been born in altogether cleaner neighborhood, safe and warm in the little house Patrick and Marianne had moved into after the war. She'd been a refined sort of woman, his Marianne, and Patrick had doted on her, and given her everything he possibly could. A beautiful house, a well-tended garden, his attention and his affection; these gifts he had lavished upon her, and for a time they had been so happy. For a time, until the cancer struck her. It was the headaches, first, debilitating headaches that sent her to bed in the middle of the day, then the nausea and the shakes. She'd been six months in hospital, slowly slipping away from him, growing paler and thinner by the day, and nothing Patrick had learned, nothing his colleagues at the hospital tried could save her. They'd celebrated Christmas together on the ward, Patrick and Marianne and Timothy, and the next day she'd slipped into a coma, and by New Year's she was gone.
And now it was February, and they were here, Patrick and Timothy, in the little flat above the surgery that was to be their new home. He'd hoped a change of scenery would do them both good, but as he watched his son wander through the maze of boxes he could not help but wonder if the choice had been a selfish one. As if he had turned his son's whole life upside down in his haste to run from his own grief, and in so doing opened a wound that might never be healed.
The glum quiet of the flat was broken, then, by the shrill ringing of the telephone. Reflexively Patrick darted towards the counter to answer it, banging his shin on a box as he went and cursing despite himself. He'd never cursed where Marianne could hear him, but she wasn't there to chide him, any more, and the words fell from his lips unhindered.
"Doctor Turner, yes," he said breathlessly as he scooped up the telephone. "Ah, Sister Julienne. What can I do for you?"
He'd met the Sister a fortnight before, when he'd come to Poplar to sign the necessary paperwork for his takeover of the surgery. Doctor Howard, his predecessor, had insisted on taking him on a sort of walking tour of Poplar - not that Patrick needed it, really, he remembered every street and pub with an almost alarming clarity - and Nonnatus House had been the last stop. As a GP childbirth would form a pillar of his practice; not a day passed, Doctor Howard told him, that there wasn't at least one baby born in Poplar. There had only been two nuns in Nonnatus that day, Sister Julienne and an older lady whose name Patrick did not recall, though one or two of the nurses had come flitting in and out while he had discussed the midwifery and the district nursing rota with Sister Julienne. She was a lovely woman, dignified and graceful, soft spoken in a way that indicated power, rather than weakness. Sister Julienne did not raise her voice because she did not need to; when she spoke, everyone listened.
And Patrick was no different. She was calling, she explained, because Nonnatus House was hosting their weekly mother and baby clinic, and they had a case requiring a doctor's attention. Could he come at once?
He agreed before he'd even processed the question, hanging up the phone and immediately reaching for his coat. He spun on his heel, and found himself face to face with Timothy, and the boy's rather disapproving expression.
"Where are you going?" Timothy demanded, and Patrick just stared at him, aghast.
Their life hadn't been like this, before. He'd kept structured hours at the hospital, and only rarely had to rush off for some emergency. And even then if he did have to leave unexpectedly, Marianne had always been home to watch after Timothy. Now, though, he rather thought that was about to change. A GP was at the beck and call of his patients, particularly in a place like Poplar, and there was no one else to keep an eye on his son. He could hardly leave Tim alone in the flat on their very first day, but likewise he was somewhat reticent to bring his son along; a mother and baby clinic was no place for a nine year old boy who'd just lost his own mother. Still, what choice did he have? The housekeeper he'd hired would not come to call until Thursday, and Timothy would not be starting school until the following week.
"Get your coat, Tim," he said. "I'll explain in the car."
The mother and baby clinic was held at the parish hall, and though Patrick had not grown up as a member of the church he still found the place easily enough. It was too cold for the mothers to leave the prams outside, and the older children were all in school, and so there seemed very little life about the place as he and Timothy walked from the car towards the front door. To the left there was a small garden that was likely full of children in the summertime - though at present it seemed almost hauntingly empty - and as they approached Tim heaved a little sigh, and pointed towards it.
"Can I stay out here?" he asked. There was very little about the garden to recommend it, but it was at least away from the street, and the windows of the parish hall looked out onto it. Parents let their children play outside all over Poplar, Patrick knew, and Tim had a good head on his shoulders. As much as he want to keep his son by his side all times, he supposed now was a good a moment as any to begin to allow the boy a bit of freedom.
"All right," he agreed. "You have your watch?"
Timothy held up his hand to show off the watch he'd received as a Christmas gift less than two months before. Strange, to think that such a short time had passed since last he'd heard Marianne's voice, since Timothy had curled up beside his mother in her hospital bed, and she had smiled at him so softly, her hand drifting through his hair. It was, Patrick thought, his last happy memory.
"Good lad. If I'm not back in half an hour, you come inside and find me, yes?"
Timothy nodded, and so Patrick left him to his own devices, and made his way into the parish hall.
He was greeted by a cacophony of voices; the door opened onto a long corridor, and the din seemed to be coming from a room at the end of the hall. There was nothing nefarious about the noise; it was the sound of women talking, their conversations growing louder and louder as they fought to be heard over their neighbors, gregarious and unbothered on a Tuesday morning. He began to make his way towards that noise, but his progress was impeded at once by a most unexpected encounter.
As he walked along he passed a sort of storage closet on his right, and he had no sooner drawn level with its open door than a woman came tumbling out of it, a pile of boxes and coats and children's nativity costumes coming with her. On instinct Patrick reached out to catch her, his hands finding purchase on her narrow waist - but, to his horror, not before his palms brushed against the curve of a very pert set of breasts - holding her tight against him in an effort to steady her. It happened so quickly; her back came to rest flush against his chest, a startled little " oh!" passing her lips as she settled into his grip, the faint of scent of gardenias washing up towards him as his hands curled just a little tighter than was necessary around her. She looked up over her shoulder at him, and he noticed three things in rapid succession. First, he noticed that she was very small, a head shorter than he and delicately built. Second, he noticed that behind her round glasses there lay quite the most stunningly beautiful pair of eyes he'd ever seen, a brilliant, arresting shade of blue which no word could adequately describe. Third, he realized she was a nun, and he snatched his hands away from her and all but leapt back, apologies dripping from his lips in a moment.
"Oh, Sister, do forgive me," he sputtered. She spun on her heel to face him, but there seemed to be no anger in her. The color was high in her cheeks and those blue eyes were round and confused, but she did not chastise him for having put his hands upon her person, and for that he was very grateful.
"I think I ought to be the one apologizing to you," she told him, her voice a sweet, lilting brogue he had not expected to find in such a place as this. "I lost my footing, and if you hadn't been there, well…"
Yes, Patrick supposed if he hadn't been there the poor little nun would have gone arse over tea kettle right there in the corridor, but still, his touch had been most improper. As he looked at her, a little confused and a little flustered himself by their strange encounter, he could not help but notice that she seemed young, terribly young compared to the two other nuns he'd met on his visit to Nonnatus, compared to the tremulous Sisters who used to visit the hospital, too young, he thought, to be hidden beneath wimple and habit. Get a hold of yourself, man.
"What were you doing in there?"
He'd meant to beg her forgiveness one last time and set off for the clinic, but the wrong words had come tumbling out of his mouth. Strange, but just then he found that a part of him wanted to forget the clinic altogether, forget his return to the streets of his youth and the unpleasantness of his morning and the long lonely eternity stretching out before him and linger instead in this moment when everything felt lighter, somehow. Their circumstances were comical, and she had been kind, and for a moment everything else ceased to matter. There was something rather refreshing about it, speaking to someone who did not know him, did not know his grief, did not know his past, someone he likewise knew so little, someone charming and blushing prettily and yet so completely outside the ordinary troubles of the world.
"I need to fetch down a box of linens, but I couldn't quite reach," she confessed, ducking her head in a enchanting display of humility.
"Show me," he suggested gently, and together they returned to the storage closet.
"Up there," she was standing very close to him as she pointed to the highest shelf, and he could not hide his grin as he realized she was too small to reach that box on her own. Had she tried to climb up, dainty feet scrambling for purchase against the lower shelves, before she'd come tumbling into his path? It was a charming thought, that she might do such a thing despite the dignity of her vestments. Without any prompting from her Patrick reached up and plucked the box down easily.
"There," he said. "Where do you want it?"
She had reached for the box but he kept his grip on it; she really was a dainty little thing, and the box was rather heavy. Patrick had spent his youth hauling boxes for his father's shop, and there was something familiar about it, lifting and carrying and doing as he was bid.
"I'll take it," she told him. "We need them for the clinic."
"In that case, you're in luck," Patrick told her, still smiling. Christ, he felt as if he hadn't smiled for a year, and now he couldn't seem to stop. "I'm needed in the clinic as well. Doctor Turner, at your service." He shifted his grip on the box and freed his hand for her to shake, which she did rather quickly, though her surprise was evident in her face. She had not anticipated meeting the new GP in such a fashion, he was sure, but then he had not thought that he would stumble across a nun this way, either.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Turner," she answered. "I'm Sister Bernadette. If you'll just follow me, I'll take you to Sister Julienne."
She turned and began to march down the corridor, and he fell into step at once, trailing after her like a well-trained dog. And as he walked along it occurred to him that for the first time in weeks he was beginning to feel as if, somehow, everything was going to be all right.
5 February 1957
It was strange to think that just that morning Sister Bernadette had whispered to Trixie that the new GP was certainly taking his sweet time; though it had been nearly a month since they were promised he was coming, he wasn't scheduled to see patients until the following week, and no one had seen hide nor hair of him. Well, he had visited Nonnatus House for tea with Sister Julienne and Sister Monica Joan, but they had not provided much insight into his character or suitability for the role. Sister Julienne had described him as knowledgeable and quite...passionate about the work we do here, while Sister Monica Joan had sniffed and declared him overwrought and excitable as a child...I do believe he will collapse from exhaustion within a fortnight if he does not learn to temper himself. Sister Bernadette had worked with all sorts during her time with the convent, and she didn't much mind if the man was enthusiastic or energetic so long as he got to work quickly; the expectant mothers of Poplar were in desperate need of a GP, and they had waited long enough.
But then the man had appeared, most unexpectedly, right there in the corridor of the parish hall a bare few hours after Sister Bernadette had lamented his absence. What he must think of me! She thought, still blushing when she recalled the way she had quite literally stumbled into his path. The touch of his hands upon her person had all but paralyzed her and she had been momentarily struck dumb; she was so unaccustomed to such gentle contact that she found she hardly knew what to do with herself. It wasn't as if she never touched anyone - childbirth was a messy business, and sometimes she held the mother's hands, or braced her hands against their thighs or feet, and sometimes they threw their arms around her neck and clung to her - but this had been an altogether different sort of touch. Broad hands, strong and tender, resting on the curve of her waist, a solid chest against the slope of her back, a warm huff of breath washing over the side of her neck as she collided with him; that was most unusual.
Of course he had been the very soul of courtesy, once he realized what he'd done. He'd stepped back at once and apologized most profusely, assisted her in completing her task and rushed off to see to a patient, but still the sensation of his presence at her back lingered in her mind. It had been rather...nice to be held, however, briefly, but Sister Bernadette knew such niceties were not meant for her, and she had already devoted rather more time than was necessary to thinking about them. The clinic was winding down and she would soon need to assist her Sisters and the nurses in gathering up their equipment and making the trek back to Nonnatus House for a bit of sustenance. Such was her life, to serve, to help, to allow her own personal wants and needs to be subsumed beneath the weight of her care for others. Those were the vows she had taken, to set aside her very self in favor of tending to others, and she did not regret those vows, not for one moment.
Nearly all of the mothers had left and those remaining were sitting behind the curtains, being tended to by the midwives. Sister Bernadette had seated herself behind the small desk where they took the patients' information, and she was looking over the logbook when a young boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, came wandering up to her. He looked vaguely lost, and decidedly out of his place; his clothes were clean and rather more nicely fitted than those usually worn by the children of Poplar, and his eyes were a little wild around the edges, as if he had no idea where he was or how he had come to be there.
"Excuse me," he said as he approached the desk, his careful, practiced politeness a sure sign that his parents had done their best to teach him well, "can you help me? I'm looking for my dad. He said I was to come and find him if he took longer than half an hour."
Sister Bernadette was quite certain she had never seen this lad before in her life, but before she opened her mouth to ask him who his father was it occurred to her that she likely knew the answer already. She had, after all, only recently been introduced to a very polite man whose gangly limbs and thick, dark hair seemed echoed in the person of the child in front of her.
"Would your father be Doctor Turner, by any chance?" she asked him gently, unable to keep from smiling. Their old GP Doctor Howard had been a life-long bachelor and a bit of an odd duck, and though he had been working in Poplar so long that everyone had grown used to his personal peculiarities Sister Bernadette was somewhat relived to think that the new doctor was a family man, and so perhaps might know better than old Doctor Howard how to talk to children and their mothers.
The lad nodded vigorously, and her smile only grew. "He's with a patient now, but he shan't be much longer." The boy's face fell; he had already been waiting quite some time, and he looked a bit lonesome, being the only child in the parish hall and without a companion to keep him occupied while he waited. It wouldn't do, she thought, to leave the lad alone to wait in one of the chairs while everyone else carried on without him. He looked, she thought, rather in need of some attention.
"Would you like a biscuit while you wait?" she asked him gently.
"Yes, please," he answered at once, and she almost laughed at his eagerness; what a dear boy he was!
"Come with me," she told him, and he fell into step beside her at once as she led him towards the kitchen. He's going to be as tall as his father, she thought as they walked along; already the lad was almost level with her, and he wasn't even a teenager yet.
There was a plate of Marie biscuits sitting on the counter and the kettle was still warm; this will do quite nicely, she thought. The boy made a beeline for the biscuits but he kept his hands to himself, waiting for permission no doubt, and she found this to be another point in Doctor Turner's favor, that his son should be so well mannered. Of course, there was no need for hesitation, and she told him so. He snatched one up at once and began to eat it with gusto while she fixed herself a cup of tea.
It was not often that Sister Bernadette found herself alone with a child, without an anxious mother hovering close by, without some medical emergency as impetus for their interaction, and she found she quite liked the change of pace. She had always been very fond of children, and though she was sworn to have none of her own the children of Poplar had filled that hole in her heart, and she cherished each and every one of them.
"Now then," she said once she'd had a sip of tea, "what's your name?"
"Timothy," he answered around a mouthful of biscuit.
"It's very nice to meet you, Timothy. I'm Sister Bernadette."
"Are you a nun?" he asked curiously. "I've never met a nun before but dad says there's lots of them here."
"I am a Sister of the Order of Saint Raymond Nonnatus," she told him, though there was something in his gaze that seemed to suggest he didn't understand a word she'd just spoken.
"Are all the nurses here nuns?"
"Some of us," she answered, smiling tolerantly at his question. It was the way of little boys, she'd found, to be full of questions, and she didn't mind indulging him in the least, not now when clinic was nearly over and she wasn't needed elsewhere. "The Sisters of our Order are all trained midwives, but there are other nurses who work with us who haven't taken vows."
"What does that mean? What vows?" he looked as if he were about to ask another question but then he seemed to catch himself. "I'm sorry, dad says I have to be very nice to the nuns and not bother them."
"You aren't a bother, Timothy," she assured him. Most children found the concept of her calling to be quite unusual, and she had grown rather used to explaining herself to them. "The vows we take are like a promise to God. We promise that we won't marry or have children, that we will give everything we have to other people and that we will serve God every day. We are called to help others first and foremost."
"My dad doesn't believe in God but I think he must be called, too. He's always helping other people."
That was not something Sister Bernadette had expected the lad to say. It was quite an insightful observation coming from one so young, but it was the rather casual way he had announced his father's atheism that troubled her. Though there were plenty of people in Poplar who didn't care much for religion the church formed the very backbone of their little society; the parish hall was the center of the community and Nonnatus House tended to their neighbors in ways great and small every day. Doctor Howard, unusual as he might have been, was a devout parishioner, and his faith had been a comfort to the Sisters who worked with him. Sister Bernadette wasn't sure what to make of a doctor who didn't believe in God, and if he was so firmly entrenched in his atheism that his young son could speak of it so blithely, she worried he might be the sort of man who would disdain her and her Sisters for their vows. Although, Timothy had also told her my dad says I have to be very nice to the nuns; perhaps Doctor Turner wouldn't subject them to a protracted series of debates the way other avowed atheists she knew had done. And Timothy had also spoken of his father's selflessness, and perhaps that was another point in the man's favor. Then again perhaps, she told herself, she ought to spend less time wondering about the doctor's disposition, and let him reveal himself to her in his own way.
"That's very nice, Timothy," she said.
He reached for another biscuit and she for her tea, and for a few moments the little kitchen was silent. His father's absence was revealed in the ticking of the clock, however, and Sister Bernadette felt a bit sorry for Timothy, all alone with no one but a nun to keep him company.
Why is he here? She wondered as she looked at him; one of the patients had told her that she'd seen a van outside the surgery earlier in the day, and a man carrying boxes inside. Had Mrs. Turner sent Timothy along with his father so she could unpack in peace? The task would be easier, Sister Bernadette was sure, without a questionsome lad underfoot. But if they had only just arrived, they couldn't have had time to make arrangements for their supper, and it was getting rather late in the day; we'll have to send them a little something, Sister Bernadette thought, to welcome them home.
"I suppose your mother is at home?" she asked the boy after a time. She'd need to know just how many people were in their little family if she was to send them something to eat, and her intention was to ask him next if he had any little brothers or sisters, but she never got the chance for the lad's face grew suddenly, terribly sad, and he looked almost as if he were on the verge of tears.
"My mum died," he said in a wobbly voice. "Just after Christmas. It's just me and dad now."
Her heart went out to the lad; not even two months had passed since Christmas, and his grief must have still been so very raw; she could see it, written on every line of his face. And so without a thought she reached for him, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. In that moment she wanted very much to tell him that she had lost her own mother when she was very small, that she knew how deep that hurt could run, how that wound never truly seemed to heal, how everything could change in a single moment. But she would not say such a thing just now, for in this moment she wanted to focus on Timothy, and not derail their little conversation with her own story. It had, after all, been a very long time since her own bereavement, and she was no longer the same person she had been before. No, just now she wanted only to comfort him, to let him know that he was not entirely alone.
The little blonde haired nurse had told him that she'd seen a boy of about nine or ten sneaking off to the kitchen with Sister Bernadette, and so once he'd finished with his patient he set off for that place at once intent on collecting Timothy and making his way home. Patrick was dead tired and the thought of returning to that little flat was a grim one; he hadn't unpacked a single box, and he had no idea what they were going to do about supper. There was so much work to be done, but he couldn't bring himself to regret the time he'd spent in the clinic today. It was very nice, he thought, to be seeing patients again, to meet the nuns and the nurses, to have some sense of purpose bigger than himself and his own troubles. The boxes could wait; there had to be a chippy somewhere in the neighborhood, he told himself, and he needed only to find the box with the bedsheets in it to see himself and Timothy through the night.
He was met with a very strange scene, however, for as he reached the kitchen doorway he heard Timothy say my mum died, and he stood momentarily paralyzed, watching as the little nun placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, as Timothy collapsed against her and began to weep, and she held him close. His heart was torn, in that moment, for it was a relief to see a woman - even in a woman in a habit - holding his son, treating him so tenderly, but the sound of Timothy's sobs cut him to the quick, and he wished, not for the first time, that he could go back, that there had been something, anything he could have done to stave off this calamity. What good was it being a doctor if he couldn't save his own wife, if he couldn't protect his son from this horror?
Sister Bernadette must have heard his footsteps for she looked up at him then, blue eyes shining from behind her glasses, and in those eyes he found not pity, but understanding.
He had been worried, when he first decided to take this job, that people would treat him and his son as if they were broken, once the truth came out. He had worried that he would have to explain himself over and over again, and that each time his neighbors would do as his friends at the hospital had done, and offer him platitudes while also taking a step back from him, as if grief were a contagion he carried on his very person. What he saw now, this unwavering kindness, this willingness to step into that grief along with them, was an unexpected blessing.
It had not taken long to extract Timothy from the little nun, and she had been most kind as she bid them both farewell. As they rode along in the car Tim slowly came back to himself, and by the time they reentered the flat he was full of questions once more, all about the Sisters and the Order, the clothes they wore, the vows they took. Despite his own exhaustion Patrick had done his best to answer them, though the vow of chastity had given him pause. Yes, the Sisters were sworn not to marry, but it was more than that; plenty of unmarried people got up to all sorts of unchaste things, but that was perhaps a bit more information than a nine year old needed. The clothes they wore, the habit and wimple, the way they lived, even their work as midwives were all designed to separate the Sisters from men almost entirely. They were not to concern themselves with beauty, were to bury their own appearance, even the very shape of their bodies, in the clothes that formed their armor, and set them apart. And it was most improper for a man to allow himself to settle his hands upon a nun's waist, to think how very small and delicate she was, to wonder at the brilliance of her eyes. At a loss to explain himself and rather troubled by the course of his own thoughts he had deliberately diverted Timothy's attention to the boxes, and his own with it, for it would do him no good to think of her now.
It was harder than he had anticipated, locating the linens; he had not thought to mark the boxes before they were tossed into the van for the move, and so they were forced to search for the better part of an hour, opening nearly every box in the place, before they found what they were after. Tim had no sooner let out a cry of triumph than there came a knock on the door, and so Patrick left him to it and went to see who had come to call.
It was a big man in a pair of overalls, his hair going grey and a brilliant smile on his face.
"Fred Buckle, at your service," the man said, offer Patrick his right hand to shake while with his left he held a little basket.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Buckle, I'm not seeing patients at the moment," Patrick told him, bewildered. It was getting on towards 6:00 in the evening and he would have thought everyone else was settling down to supper. And why on earth would anyone come to his home for medical advice instead of waiting until office hours?
Mr. Buckle let out a hearty laugh. "I'm not here for medicine," he said jovially. "Only, we know you've just arrived, and we thought maybe you and your lad might be in need of some supper."
With those words he held out the basket, and Patrick realized his mistake at once, and accepted the basket gladly. The faint smell of fish and chips wafted up towards him, and his stomach rumbled happily in anticipation.
"Thank you," he said earnestly. "I don't know what we would have done otherwise." And that was true enough, but Patrick had never seen this Mr. Buckle before in his life; how on earth had the man even learned of their predicament, let alone had the time to rush out and get them something to eat? Someone must have told him, Patrick thought, but who? Had everyone in Poplar already learned of their arrival?
"That's what neighbors are for. You need anything, you come and find me, all right? I'm a handyman and a plumber, and if there's anything in here needs fixing, I'm your man. You can ask around, or just go straight to Nonnatus House, I'm there most days."
And then it all seemed to click into place. Though any one of the nurses or even Sister Julienne could have been responsible for this gift somewhere deep in his heart Patrick knew that was not the case. He had not spoken to anyone else of his wife, had not told anyone anything about his family, and yet Mr. Buckle had said you and your lad, had known that it was just the two of them. No, it had to have been the little nun with the bright blue eyes who orchestrated this gift, and he could not help but smile as he thanked Mr. Buckle once again for his timely arrival.
19 February 1957
There was a routine, a rhythm to life in Poplar. It was familiar to him, in some ways; the rising of the sun gave way to the tramping of work boots, the calling voices of wives and children trailing after, the creak of ropes and crates down by the river, quiet bursting into life. Then work, long, back breaking work, shouts and grunts and chanting song, a break for lunch, then the children rushing home from school, the clamor in the streets joyous and never ending. Then the men making their way back from the docks, the clink of thousands of spoons against thousands of plates - for those who had plates - the whistle of the teakettle, the soft pour of whiskey, the sun sinking below the horizon, creaks of a different sort under cover of darkness echoing from happy homes, thumps and silence from unhappy ones.
That routine was alternately a blessing and a curse for Patrick, and sometimes both at once. He had always rather resented being told what to do - an unfortunate trait, for a soldier - and his mind often wandered down paths he wished to pursue, his exploration of his books or his journals or a lovely song on the wireless inevitably cut short by the ticking of the clock, the next item on the checklist. Office hours in the morning and rounds after lunch - except for Tuesdays, when Nonnatus House hosted their mother and baby clinic from 2:00 until 5:00 - and then home in time for supper with Timothy, it should have been easy, but he found it difficult to complete each appointment in the surgery within the allotted time - as if he could learn everything he needed to know about his new patients in half an hour! - and so the queue would back up and patients would grumble. Rounds were no better; he'd be welcomed into a home, offered tea and a biscuit, or perhaps even a slice of cake depending on the patient's means, and he could hardly refuse such gentle courtesy, but that meant he spent rather longer in one home than he ought, and he could hardly give less attention to one patient than another. Most days he was off schedule by 10:00 a.m., with no chance to make up for it.
And yet, there was comfort in knowing where he ought to go next. Even if he could not stick to a timetable, even if he felt he was constantly in a rush, darting from one place to another, knowing what was expected of him, knowing where he ought to be, gave him a respite from making those determinations for himself. He felt as if he'd been exhausted for a year; Marianne had fallen ill months before she'd gone into hospital, and she and Timothy had both looked to him to keep things afloat at home. He did not resent it, had wanted, very much, to take care of his family, but he had felt himself unequal to the task. He'd run himself ragged trying to hold them all together, trying to remain upbeat and positive for the sake of his wife and child, holding his own fears so tight within his heart he felt it might shatter from the tension. And then the longer Marianne languished in hospital the more the black dog of grief had bit at his heels, and had it not been for Timothy he might well have fallen into the pit of darkness that had once claimed him during the war. But he had beat it back, for his son's sake; he could not stop, could not pause, could not surrender himself to that pain, not when Tim was so young and so utterly alone without him. Now, now he felt some of the weight lifted from his shoulders, for he had found a place where they both belonged, and a structure that would keep both their lives running without much input from him at all.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven; he was not a religious man, had not come from a religious family, but still he knew the words, and they flitted through his head quite often now. Each season of his life had brought new challenges, and yet each of them had ended, a chapter drawn to a close, to be remembered but never revisited. It had not been so very long since last his life had revolved around visiting Marianne in hospital, and yet life rushed forward, inexorably, and in the chaos he found some distance from his own pain. Perhaps it was foolish, to train his thoughts on each day's little emergencies, to shy away from the wound in his heart as if touching it might rip it open afresh; perhaps the longer he spent avoiding his grief the greater the pain would be when at last he was forced to face it, but there was so bloody much to do.
They'd only been in Poplar for a fortnight, and though Mrs. Penny had offered to help with the unpacking a great many of their things remained in boxes. Among those things, Tim's baby toys and Marianne's clothes and the books Patrick had not yet reached for, the photographs of his beautiful wife remained hidden, buried, as his own grief was buried. It would resurface, he knew, just as he knew that one day surely he would open a box and see her smiling face and fall to the floor and weep, but it would not be this day, and so he pressed ever onward.
Tuesday afternoons meant he was needed at the clinic, and so after accepting one last cup of tea and extracting a promise from his last patient of the day that she would try to rest and not spend so much time on her feet Patrick slid behind the wheel of his car and drove over to the Parish Hall. He would be there until 5:00, or more likely until 5:30, but Tim would walk over with some of the other boys after school and they would play in the garden and everything would be all right, at least for one more afternoon.
He was only ten minutes late today, and that seemed a triumph in itself; as he walked through the corridor lined with prams and the voices of the waiting mothers filled his ears, he could not help but smile. Obstetrics had not been his specialty in school and there had hardly been any call for such expertise while he was with the army, or even after when he'd come home and accepted a position at the London, but he found he quite enjoyed this work, now. Pregnancy was not an illness, not something to be cured or cursed - in most cases, though there were, inevitably, exceptions - and these patients were cheerful and content, and most glad to see him. There was joy in this work, in the bringing forth of new life, in the smiles of the mothers and the wails of their infants. There was something almost...holy about it, something mysterious and inexplicable. In this world his expertise was welcome but not required, for the mother's body knew better than he what it was doing, and pregnancy would progress to its natural conclusion with or without his input. He was there to help it along, when such help was called for, but most of the time the process carried on with no regard for his understanding.
As he entered the parish hall he made his way directly to the desk that served as patient intake. There were perhaps a dozen mothers seated in the chairs so carefully arranged by the nurses' hands and no doubt several more already behind the curtains being seen to by the midwives, and there was, mercifully, no line at the desk at present. But she sat there, the little nun with the bright blue eyes, looking over the paperwork with a cup of tea close to hand.
"Good afternoon, Sister Bernadette," he said as he reached her, and she looked up and offered him a wide smile.
"Oh! Greetings, Doctor Turner."
One day he wanted to ask her how a girl from Scotland had ended up living as a nun in Poplar, but now was hardly the time to sate his personal curiosity; there was work to be getting on with.
"What have we got today?"
Her smile faded, somewhat, and he took that as a very bad sign indeed, for the little nun was almost always smiling, happy in her work.
"Mrs. Harper is with Nurse Franklin just now," Sister Bernadette said. "It would be best if you went to see her first. Mrs. Harper is RH negative, and this is her second baby."
"You suspect Rhesus disease?" Patrick asked. Now he was frowning, too.
"We do," she answered. "They're just over there," she pointed to one of the curtained off areas to her left.
"Right," Patrick said. "Thank you, Sister Bernadette."
And just like that he was once more focused on a task, redirected from his wandering thoughts and the push and pull of his own heart, and time wore ever onward.
"It was very kind of you and Timothy to offer to help," Sister Julienne said as they stacked away the last of the chairs, Madame Edith's dance class just beginning their warm ups in the background. Timothy did not particularly enjoy being asked to help with the clean-up after clinic, but he was very good about only complaining to his father in private, and at that very moment young Nurse Franklin held the boy in thrall, telling him some ghastly story about childbirth that did not seem to disgust him so much as it fascinated him. Timothy was an endlessly curious lad and Patrick had caught him, more than once, with his nose buried in a back issue of The Lancet. Perhaps it was too early to tell what career Tim would choose for himself when he was grown, but the thought that his son might follow in his footsteps and become a doctor filled Patrick's heart full to bursting with pride.
"Happy to be of service, Sister," he answered her winsomely. Yes, he was quite happy to stay here for as long as possible, surrounded by the nuns and the nurses, with something to do; when they finally made their way home the flat would be eerily still, and all the things he'd tried so hard not to think about during the day would come for him. Yes, the evenings were the hardest. He'd warm up some of whatever Mrs. Penny had left for their supper and he and Tim would eat it together at their little table, and Tim would tell him about school and the boys he'd met, but then they would both, inevitably, find themselves a little bit at a loss. He'd read his book, after, and Tim would play with his models, and then he'd shuffle the boy off for bath and bed and be left utterly alone, with nothing and no one to occupy him save for a vast, yawning chasm of loneliness and an empty bed. No, he was in no particular rush to go home.
"You must join us for our evening meal," Sister Julienne said then.
Patrick's first instinct was to say no, thank you, and shuffle off home. A month before he never would have even considered that this might be his life, spending his evenings in a convent. But the ladies were all so very kind, and everyone had told him what a marvelous cook Mrs. Bee was, and Timothy was certain to be the very center of attention at the table. It would also allow him to stave off the imminent desolation of the night for a while longer, and so he changed course rather quickly.
"I wouldn't want to trouble you, Sister," he said carefully.
Sister Julienne smiled. She had a very warm, maternal sort of smile; there was something calm, almost otherworldly about her, as if every person she met regardless of age or station was on some cosmic level one of her children, and she welcomed them all with open arms and a gentle spirit.
"It would be no trouble at all," she assured him.
"Well, then, we would be honored to join you," he said earnestly, and that was that.
He felt a bit bad about driving over to Nonnatus House while the nurses and nuns had to make their way by bicycle, but the streets in Poplar were not particularly hospitable to cars, and the bicycles traveled much more easily. They'd reach their destination before he did, he was certain of it.
So he gathered Tim and his case, and made his way out into the evening.
"Do we have to go?" Tim asked as they both slid into the car and closed the doors.
"It was very kind of Sister Julienne to invite us. It will be all right, Tim, you'll see." Patrick thought it might provide an education in its own way, spending time with the ladies in their home; Tim's life before Poplar had been rather small, and everyone they knew was just like them. It would be good for him, Patrick thought, to learn a bit about how other people lived, what they believed, how their lives worked. After all, if the boy truly meant to become a doctor he would have to deal with all sorts of people, and treat them all with the same courtesy and respect. There was no better time to learn such lessons than now, Patrick thought, when Tim was still young and his view of the world not yet set in stone.
"I'm tired. I want to go home."
He was pouting, now, and Patrick was beginning to feel a headache coming on.
"We will," he promised. "After supper."
There was no cause to be nervous, Sister Bernadette knew. Doctor Turner was very kind and Timothy was a delightful boy, and they all got on rather well together. There was no reason to suspect that this meal would be anything other than cordial, and yet she could not help but feel somewhat apprehensive. She wanted, very much, for her home to meet with Doctor Turner's approval. She wanted him to feel welcome, wanted him to enjoy the meal, wanted the conversation around the table to delight and not to bore him. He seemed the sort of man who bored easily, forever rushing from one thing to the next, his hands never still, his mind constantly at work.
It had only been a fortnight, and she knew so very little about him. She supposed that to him she was just another one of the nuns, and that was as it should be, but there was only one Doctor Turner. He was learning so many people's names, so many people's life stories, but his was the only new face in her orbit, and she supposed it was only natural that she should feel so powerfully curious about the stranger who had come to land in their midst. Particularly given that this stranger was so very different from anyone else she'd ever known. He was brilliant and energetic and passionate, and despite the fact that he had enjoyed a rather comfortable life working at the London he had chosen to come here, of all places, to this poor and neglected corner of the city.
Grief made people do all sorts of things, she knew. That pain had come for her own family, stolen her mother away when she was small, and she remembered how some of the spark had seemed to leave her father then. Her memories were cloudy, as difficult to grasp as a wisp of smoke upon the wind, but of that much she was certain, that her home, her life, had been full of joy and song before, and it had become terribly quiet after. She wondered if her father wished he could have done as Doctor Turner did, packed them up and moved them to a new place, given them a fresh start, or if he treasured his memories too closely, and would not dare abandon them. It was too late to ask him now, of course, for her father had died when she was still a teenager, and all her questions had gone unanswered.
Sister Bernadette and her companions arrived at Nonnatus House well before Doctor Turner and his boy, and so they raced inside together, laughing. She went straight into the kitchen and began pulling down the plates and the silverware, wanting to have the table set before their guests arrived. Whatever Mrs. Bee had left for their supper smelled heavenly, sitting on covered platters there at the small kitchen table, and that cheered her - not that she would suspect anything less, from Mrs. Bee.
From behind her she heard the calling of voices, Doctor Turner's made conspicuous by its deep, rich timbre in comparison to the high lilting voices of the nurses. There was laughter and the stomping of feet, and Sister Bernadette turned then, her arms laden with plates, and nearly dropped them on the spot for as she moved she found herself face-to-face with Doctor Turner. A curl of his dark hair had escaped the confines of his Brylcreem at the end of a long day to tumble charmingly across his forehead, and she felt the strange, sudden urge to abandon the plates and reach out to brush it back.
"Oh!" she said instead, keeping a tight hold on her burden. "I didn't expect to see you there."
He smiled, and her fluttered strangely in her chest.
"I've come to offer my services," he said, reaching out to take the plates from her. "I'd like to help, if I may. You've all had a very long day, and I hardly expect to be waited on hand and foot."
And that was strange, too, in its own way, his eagerness to help. In her experience men - doctors or otherwise - had no qualms at all about being waited on, and in fact expected it. Most of the men she'd known - except for Fred, of course - had a habit of making themselves scarce when there was work to be done, but Doctor Turner was proven eager to throw himself into the task at hand, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the midwives, as if they were all of them equals.
"That's very kind of you," she murmured. Without the plates to occupy her hands she went in search of the silverware, and Doctor Turner marched happily from the room.
"There's no guarantee that the baby will have Rhesus disease," Sister Evangelina was saying.
They had enjoyed rather a pleasant meal, all of them together, and Sister Bernadette was now passing out pieces of a truly delightful coconut cake while the conversation drifted towards the day's events. When she handed a piece to Tim the boy reached for it eagerly, but Patrick gave him a sharp poke and he remembered his manners.
"Thank you, Sister Bernadette," he said quickly, a forkful of cake already halfway to his mouth.
"You're quite welcome, Timothy," she answered with a smile.
That bit of parenting done, Patrick jumped once more into the conversation.
"No," he agreed, "it isn't a guarantee, but it is the most likely course. This is her second baby, and we can be fairly certain that she was exposed to her first child's Rh positive blood while it was in the womb."
"He," Sister Bernadette corrected primly. The cake had all been distributed by then, and she had settled once more into her seat across from him.
"I'm sorry?" Patrick asked, confused.
"Mrs. Harper's first child is a boy. Derek. He's not an it."
"Oh, I do beg your pardon."
Of the many strange and sometimes confusing aspects of his new life in Poplar this was one he found most difficult to adjust to. During his work at the London he saw new patients almost every day, and there were few who came back a second time. There was no room in the schedule for forming personal relationships with patients, nor really any need. Each patient was less a person and more a chart to the doctors who treated them, a list of symptoms to be analyzed and treated before moving on to the next. A GP could not afford such clinical detachment; his patients expected him to know them, to greet them by name, to understand their families and their connection and their histories. The midwives were intimately tied to their patients, their care extending long after clinic hours. They knew these women, their babies, everything about them, and in a way they loved them, as sisters to be treasured, children to be guided. Everyone in Poplar was bound to everyone else by connections Patrick could hardly fathom, but he knew that if he was to be successful he must begin to learn. That process had already begun, and Sister Bernadette's gentle chiding was just one more step along the road towards his full integration into life in this corner of the city.
"Now Timothy," Sister Bernadette said then, as the chatter of the other nurses drifted onto other subjects. "How are you getting on at school?"
Patrick flashed her a grateful smile, though he was not sure she could see it. Timothy had been rather quiet throughout the meal, the conversation of the adults flying right over his head - though they had by no means been unkind to him, of course - but Sister Bernadette had chosen to single him out, to engage with him, and such a kindness warmed Patrick's heart. He leaned back in his chair, as interested in the boy's response as he was in the motivations of the Sister who'd spoken to him.
"It's all right," Timothy said carefully. "We're doing fractions in maths but I already learned all about that last term."
That had been a worry for Patrick, too, picking Tim up and forcing him to start over in a new school. He wasn't sure if the education Tim would receive in Poplar would match up to the one he'd been given in his old school, but needs must. Whatever Tim's teachers could not provide for him Patrick supposed he would have to supplement himself, though he hardly knew where to start.
"Well, that's good, then," Sister Bernadette said cheerfully. "Perhaps you could help the other children."
Timothy shrugged, so Patrick poked him again and he sat up a bit straighter.
"Maybe," he said.
"Have you made any friends at school?"
"A couple," Timothy answered evasively.
Patrick's headache was back. It had only been a fortnight, and he knew it would take time for Tim to settle in, to adjust to his new circumstances. But he wanted, so very badly, for Tim to make friends, to smile more, to be happy in this place. The lads who went to the parish hall on Tuesday afternoons were nice enough, but he knew their number would be constantly changing; those boys were only there because their mothers were, pregnant or with very small babies to tend to, and as the weeks wore on those boys would have no need to go to the parish hall on Tuesdays, or any day for that matter. They were comrades of circumstance, and Timothy had not even told Patrick their names. It was early, too early to tell if Tim would find true friendship here, but Patrick wanted that for him, quite badly.
"Have you thought about joining Cubs?" Sister Bernadette suggested. "They meet on Thursday evenings. You might have fun there."
Timothy turned to him then, his eyes wide and hopeful. "Could I?" he asked. No doubt his mind was already churning with thoughts of camping and learning how to build fires and sailing little boats and whatever other mischief the Cubs got up to. They had discussed it, before Marianne fell ill, but then their whole lives had changed and there had been no time to set it up, and Patrick had not had the energy to add another item to his schedule. It was a perfect suggestion, and he was actually kicking himself for not inquiring about it sooner. It would keep Tim occupied, and help him build stronger relationships with other children outside of school, and he might even learn something useful. And Sister Bernadette had seen its potential at once, and offered it up so cheerfully; what a dear woman she was!
"I think that would be wonderful," Patrick said earnestly. "Who do I need to speak to about it?"
"I'll let Fred know," Sister Bernadette told him. "He can give you the details and sort out a uniform for Timothy."
And that was that. The conversation carried on over the crumbs of their cake, and Patrick sank himself inside the warmth of the moment, the chatter of the ladies and his son's brilliant smile, and the sense of hope that seemed to fill that place. The furnishings were simple and the company most unusual, but there was such grace at that table, such a sense of…family, a sense that he and Timothy belonged here, that they had found, at last, a safe place to rest.
19 March 1957
"I find it difficult to reconcile," Doctor was saying, "that after all this time and twenty-five babies, neither of them have learned the other's language. I think it's preposterous that Mr. Warren didn't even make the attempt to learn."
Sister Bernadette did not even try to hide her frown. "They love one another," she told him firmly. "Surely that's enough."
"It might explain the first few babies, when Mrs. Warren was very young and she'd only just arrived in this country. But after that...well."
They were standing together in the kitchen of the parish hall where Sister Bernadette was dutifully folding a pile of nappies while Doctor Turner loitered, smoking his cigarette and waiting for clinic to begin. Conchita Warren's baby was all anyone could talk about, news of his progress and the fierce way she cared for him spurring the imagination of every midwife - and more than a few nosy neighbors. Sister Bernadette had always been terribly fond of Conchita; no matter what life threw at her, no matter how difficult it must have to be look after so very many children, to keep them fed and clean, to navigate a country where no one understood her and she understood no one, Mrs. Warren always had a smile on her face and a seat at the table for a visiting midwife. She seemed so very content in her life, and Sister Bernadette much preferred a contented mother to a distressed one.
"And besides, love is about so much more than...making babies," Doctor Turner continued. "To make a life together, to forge the bonds that will sustain a family for years to come, people have to be able to communicate with one another. A man must understand his wife's needs in order to meet them."
"I think Mr. and Mrs. Warren understand one another quite well," Sister Bernadette told him, blushing furiously. If she were the sort of woman who cursed she would have cursed that blush, that evidence of her own somewhat sheltered life. She'd come to London at eighteen, become a postulant at twenty, taken her vows at twenty-two, and now, ten years later, she remained, as she had always been, chaste and quite unfamiliar with the sort of needs a wife might have, the sort of needs a husband might meet.
"They understand one another in the dark," Doctor Turner grumbled. "But what can he know of his wife's hopes, her dreams, her interests beyond their home? What can he know of her true thoughts, when any words she says to him must first be translated by one of their children?"
The conversation had taken a rather strange turn, and Sister Bernadette found herself at a loss there in the midst of it. Very few of the husbands she'd met had shown any particular interests in their wives' internal lives; they did not discuss books or poetry or politics with their women, did not ask if they wanted a life beyond the streets of Poplar. Oh, there were always exceptions, but they were rare, and the knowledge that Doctor Turner was himself one such exception, that he must have treated his late wife very gently and strived to make her happy in every possible way - not just in the dark - for some reason left her feeling distinctly uncomfortable. It didn't seem proper, somehow, that she should know such a private thing about him, that she should find herself imagining what sort of husband he might have been.
"I've made you uncomfortable," Doctor Turner said then. "I beg your pardon, Sister. I shouldn't have let my mouth run away with me."
"It's quite all right, Doctor," she told him primly. "You are concerned for your patient, as we all are."
"She was only fourteen when she came to this country," he mused. "Pregnant already. I wonder what she left behind, that this would have seemed the better option."
"So many of us came to Poplar from somewhere else. We all have our reasons, but whatever they are, we must...bloom where we are planted."
She made the mistake of looking up at him then, and found he was smiling at her, that charming, lopsided smile that made her heart flutter in her chest. Doctor Turner was a kind man, gentle, devoted to his patients and his son, but he was also tall, and strong, broad shouldered but quick on his feet, and he had quite the dearest smile beneath that fall of unruly dark hair. It had been a very, very long time since a man's smile had made Sister Bernadette weak in the knees, but she refused to acknowledge the effect he had upon her; he was recently widowed, and she was content and steadfast in the life she'd chosen for herself. It's only that we're friends, she tried to tell herself, and I've never been friends with a man before. Except of course for Fred. I will adjust, in time.
"I was born here," Doctor Turner told her, "and I suppose somewhere deep down I always knew I'd come back home. But what about you, Sister? How does a girl from Scotland end up in a place like this?"
See? She tried to herself beneath her blush. He thinks of me as a girl. And quite right, too, he's so much older than me. I'm no more than a curiosity to him, and that is as it should be.
"I came to London after my father died," she told him truthfully. "I wanted to find a purpose for my life, and there were too many memories in Aberdeen." And too many graves. "A friend of mine was studying to become a nurse at the London, and I joined her there."
"When was this?" Doctor Turner asked, suddenly eager. "I was a doctor there for many years."
"It was during the war. I came to the London in 1943, and I left in 1945."
Doctor Turner frowned, and ducked his head, following the line of his hand as he stubbed out his cigarette and reached for another. It was almost reflexive, the way he smoked in these quiet moments, as if he could not bear for his hands to be still.
"I was in Italy, then," he said, still not looking at her. "I didn't come back to London until 1946."
Of course he'd been a soldier; at his age, it was almost a given. Even Fred had served, at El Alamein. But it seemed that while Fred remembered his army days with a certain nostalgic fondness Doctor Turner remembered his with only regret; his expression was grim, his eyes fixed firmly on his toes, and he was puffing mightily on his cigarette, as if he hoped the smoke might obscure his memories. What has he seen? She wondered as she looked at him. He was such a gentle sort of man, terribly kind; he smiled so sweetly each time he held a baby, and he doted on young Tim, and never raised his voice, even if his tone could be a bit brusque when he was in a hurry. The thought that such a man could have witnessed horror, could have stood in the very thick of violence, troubled her greatly.
"We only just missed one another," she said softly. It would not do to ask him about his past, to raise the specter of the war here in this place where everyone was safe and violence only a distant memory. It would be better, she thought, to return to the subject at hand. But it brought her no peace, for now she was left wondering how strange it was, that they should both be tied so intimately to the same place, and yet never met one another there.
"Ships passing in the night." It was a feeble attempt at lightheartedness, but Sister Bernadette was grateful for it. The thought that they had come so close to meeting years before tugged at her, refused to let her go; what would he have been like then, she wondered, twelve years younger, fresh from the battlefield? Tim likely hadn't been born yet, was likely one of that vast wave of babies born nine months after the soldiers came home, a celebration of hope and peace and love wrapped up in the form of a living child. The Doctor's face would have been less lined, then; was he married already, before the war? Had his wife been delirious with happiness when he returned to her at last? Or had he proposed the moment he came home, determined to build a new life full of love to banish the memories of grief the war had brought him? That's not for you to know, she chided herself.
"I went to Chichester in 1945. I was a postulant for two years, and then I took my vows. And then they sent me here, and I've been here ever since."
He had asked, after all, how she had come to be in this place, and she wanted only to answer his questions, and push aside the pall of melancholy that had fallen over him.
"What made you decide to join the order? I would think that a young nurse would have had the whole of London at her disposal in those days." His smile was back; it was a bit forced, but it was there nonetheless, and she was glad to see it.
"At first it was the music," she said. Her voice had gone a bit dreamy as she spoke but she did not try to hide it; those early days with the order had been full of a sort of magic, mystical and precious, each moment, each word, dripping with meaning, leading her along a path that would become her life's endeavor. It was a beautiful thing, those steps that had led from that day to this, and she felt only love when she recalled the beginning of her journey.
But it was clear that was not the answer Doctor Turner had been expecting, for he barked out a great laugh, genuine mirth flooding his face and bringing another rush of heat to her cheeks.
"Don't laugh!" she chided him. "The first time I met the Sisters they had come with a young primigravida who had gone into early labor. We lost mother and baby both, and it was a terrible experience. I was in the corridor-" weeping, she added in her own mind - "and I heard their voices. I followed the sound and there they were, Sister Julienne and Sister Evangelina and a few others I don't think you've met. They were singing, and holding one another's hands. And I could hear their hearts breaking, but the song was so beautiful, and they had one another to cling to. They were turning their burdens over to God, and when the song was finished their faces were almost...serene. The music was a gift, a way to help them heal and to help others to do the same. They invited me to join them for compline and, well…"
And then I kept coming, night after night, because in that place I found peace for myself, and it seemed as if in the midst of the music I could hear another voice, calling to me, showing me a new path. A way forward, for myself. A family made not of blood but of choice. A place where I would never be alone, and never want for anything, for the Lord and my sisters would provide all.
It was a rather personal story, she thought, and so she kept the rest of it to herself. She did not speak of the many nights she tossed and turned, wondering what it was she wanted for her life, did not speak of the jubilation and the terror she felt the day she set out for the mother house, the comfort she found in the company of other women, the relief that overcame her when she no longer had to worry how long the money she'd saved up would last, what men thought of her when she passed them on the street, what she was going to do with herself when she was not working. The Order had provided answers to all of those questions, given her purpose and shelter, and she was grateful for it. The religious life was one of routine, yes, and with her earthly needs met she was able to focus her mind heavenward, to lose herself in songs and prayers, to set aside her insecurities and ambitions and give herself over wholly to the care of others and the service of the Lord.
"And are you happy in your choice?" Doctor Turner asked her then.
It was no wonder that Timothy was such a curious lad; his father was just as inquisitive, full of questions and a need to know why. It was another of the many things she'd learned about him in the last three months since he'd arrived, one of the many things that made her look forward to these conversations, for when she spoke with Doctor Turner he seemed to see her, not as a midwife or a Sister but as a person, one he wanted to learn more about, just as he wanted to share himself. Surely, she thought, he must be like this with everyone. He is so hungry to know, and still settling into a new place.
But it was not the sort of question a man was supposed to ask a nun. There was no particular proscription against discussing one's choice or one's contentment therewith, but to even ask such a thing was to acknowledge the possibility that the answer might be no, and that was a problem in itself. To even contemplate whether or not one was happy was to invite doubt, and once doubt had been invited it was all but impossible to banish. The call of the road not taken, the thought of a handsome man with a gentle smile, the thought of a baby to hold, born of one's own flesh and not to be handed immediately to someone else, was alluring as a siren, and to heed that call, even for a moment, was to allow oneself to step off the path. And once that was done, finding the way back was all but impossible, and one was left in darkness, without the comfort and security the order provided, and so she did not even think before she answered.
"I am," she said firmly. "This is the path God has chosen for me, and I find joy in it." And I will not turn aside from it, not for anything.
"That's good," Doctor Turner said. "You're lucky, I think, to be so certain. The rest of us are just muddling about."
His tone was kind, regretful almost, and the answer formed, right on the tip of Sister Bernadette's tongue. This would be one of those moments, she knew, when as a child of God it was her place to gently suggest that this nonbeliever might find peace should he venture into the church. The congregation would welcome him with open arms and perhaps the music would soothe his heart, as it so often did for her. And yet she did not speak, did not make such an offer, and she could not say entirely why. It was only that in the moment she felt Doctor Turner was not looking for advice or direction, that he might rebuff any attempt she made to draw him into the fold, might regret his confession and not make another to her for fear she might again try to point him to God.
"You'll find your way," she told him gently, but before he could answer Nurse Lee appeared, and announced that they were opening the doors for clinic. It was time to put aside thoughts of the doctor and their strange conversation, she knew. It was time to get to work.
20 March 1957
"You're talking about destroying an abbey that has stood on that hilltop since the sixth century! Fourteen hundred years of arts and culture and history and you're going to throw it all away when you aren't even certain the Germans are inside!" Patrick could hardly believe his ears; everyone knew chances were good the Germans weren't even hiding inside the abbey, and were instead trying to distract the Allied forces, lead their eyes one way while the real assault shaped up somewhere else.
"No offense, doc, but you're talkin' about tradin' a chance to take out an entire German platoon for the sake of one building. That ain't your call to make. Uncle Sam's done made his choice, and it's gonna happen." The American officer spit a long, thin stream of something brown and filthy into the grass at their feet. "You let us worry about the bombin', and you worry about the doctorin'. Capisce?"
The scene shifted, faded around him; it was days later, and the abbey had been demolished, and the Germans had taken up residence inside the rubble, using the fallen stones for cover. Everywhere Patrick turned he heard the low, terrible sounds of men dying; there was blood and viscera and worse splashed across the tattered apron he wore over his uniform. The tent they used as an infirmary was full to capacity with the dead and the dying already, and still the bullets flew overhead, bombs echoing in the distance.
"Got another one, doc!" a young medic called as the tent flap flew open, as three young men carried a fourth inside. It was the American he'd been speaking to days before - or was it weeks? Or months? He couldn't be sure - the American who'd told him it was too late to change course. He was riddled with holes - like a slice of Swiss cheese, Patrick remembered someone saying later - blood dribbling out of the corner of his mouth, but still, somehow, he was breathing. Triage was the order of the hour, though, and Patrick knew that even if he dedicated every resource and every medic at his disposal they'd never be able to save the man; the best surgeons at the London couldn't have done it. He took one look, and shook his head.
"I'll be damned, doc," the officer said as he was laid out on a bed, as his mates turned and left him there, knowing he was a goner. "You were right about everything, weren'tcha? I'll be damned. Fuckin' Gerries." And then he coughed once, a terrible, rattling sound, and did not speak again.
The scene shifted once more, and Patrick had a gun clutched in his hands, following a line of soldiers up a hill towards the rubble of what had once been a vast, beautiful place of worship and was now become a graveyard. Smoke hung in the air, or maybe it was fog, or maybe it was both; onward he went, up the hill, bullets flying through the air - they made the strangest sound, he thought, a sound he'd never be able to name, a sound he'd never be able to forget - and the lad to his left went down suddenly, sharply, viciously. There was no time to stop, and that young man was gone before he hit the grass. Nevermind, anyway, another took his place, and they were moving, moving, and then the scene seemed to shift again, abruptly, terribly, smoke and flames surrounding him and somewhere in the distance he thought he could hear Marianne calling for him, crying out, "Patrick, my love, where are you, I'm so alone, I'm so cold, PATRICK-"
He sat bolt upright, sweating like a man caught in a furnace, tears trailing down his cheeks. He was gasping for breath, the sheets tangled around his waist, his shirt half unbuttoned and his heart pounding in his chest. It was hardly the first time grief and terror and memory had swirled together in his mind and left him distressed and so he spun to the side with an ease borne of practice, planted his feet upon the floor, ducked his head low and buried his face in his hands.
I only hope I wasn't shouting, he thought as the dream faded slowly away. I couldn't bear it if Tim heard me.
No light streamed in from behind the curtains on his window and so he supposed it must still be night, but his stomach was heaving and his heart rate had not settled and he did not dare glance up to check the time. It didn't matter, anyway, he'd never be able to get back to sleep. He never could, not after a dream like that. When the past came calling for him, nothing but the light of the sun could banish it.
The dreams were infrequent, now; when he'd first come home from Northfield he'd had one almost once a week, but then Marianne had announced she was expecting a baby, and his grief had dispersed like smoke upon the wind, replaced by joy. It was easy to put aside thoughts of the past when the present, the future, were full of hope, when he had his wife beside him once more, when he could watch as her belly grew, and later when he could hold his son in his arms. After that the dreams visited but rarely, and Marianne had always been there to hold him, to comfort him, to run her fingers through his hair and whisper to him softly until the touch of her hand and the soothing sound of her voice banished his demons. But then she'll fallen ill, and then she'd gone into hospital, and beset by worries about her the dreams had come back with a vengeance, only this time she was in them as well, in terrible danger but always, always just beyond his reach. Since coming to Poplar he'd been almost too busy for such troubles, had fallen into bed too exhausted to dream, but something must have pulled this horror up from the depths of his subconscious.
It was the little nun, he realized grimly. Through no fault of her own, of course, but still he could see now that it must have been his conversation with Sister Bernadette the day before that had filled his head with ghosts. It was Sister Bernadette who had mentioned the war, only in passing, and Patrick had stood beside her trying to hide the tremble in his hands as he realized that when she had first come to the London, a young girl of eighteen with a heart full of dreams, he had been in Italy, wading through the blood of his friends. It was such a strange, painful sort of dichotomy, and he thought of it now just as he had thought of it then, though the darkness of his bedroom was far less cheery than the kitchen of the parish hall had been.
In February of 1944 he'd been thirty-six years old, a married man, a doctor, had already been in Italy for months, had already been serving as a medic in the army for three years. While he was in hell, she had been a fresh-faced girl, learning her trade and making friends; oh, no doubt she'd had more than her fair share of scares, everyone in London did, but their lives had charted such very different courses. She was still so young and lovely and full of hope and the love of her God, and he was now so terribly lonely, with nothing but ghosts and bitter memories to keep him company. Nothing but his young son, a child he was determined to shield from his past as much as he was able. Tim had already learned not to ask his father about the war, and so those secrets festered, far from prying eyes.
In 1944 he'd celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday while marching away from the ruins of Monte Cassino and on towards the next attack; his thirty-eighth birthday had passed while he was in Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, almost catatonic with grief. And now, in 1957, he was staring down the barrel of his fiftieth birthday, his wife gone, his illustrious career at the London traded for a quiet, thankless life of general practice in the East End. In some way the numbers helped to ground him, gave him something to think of besides violence and death, but in other ways they troubled him.
He had always thought, before now, that fifty would be some sort of grand milestone. He had thought, before now, that when he reached it his wife, six years younger than he and full of mischief, would tease him mercilessly, and love him tenderly, and help him past any sort of existential crisis resulting from the knowledge that the bulk of his life was beyond him, and he was racing now inexorably towards the bitter end. There was no wife beside him now, no soft arms to offer him comfort; he was alone in uncharted waters, and sinking fast. He would be fifty, and alone; how many good years do I have left? He wondered darkly. Will my grandchildren know me? He'd always comforted himself, in the past, with the knowledge that his wife was younger than he, and would linger longer on this earth, would be around to guide their son even after he'd moved on to whatever darkness at the end of life. He had no such comfort now, for Marianne had been taken from him, senselessly, needlessly, far too soon.
They wed when he was thirty, and she was twenty-four, his beautiful, brilliant wife. Her father had been a surgeon at the London, and the pair had been introduced at a party. Marianne had just come back from an extended trip abroad, and she was full of stories, full of life, full of smiles. Patrick had, of course, been immediately smitten by her dark hair, her dark eyes, her dimpled cheeks. Six months they'd courted, and then wed as quickly as Patrick could get a ring on her finger. There had been no need to wait, he'd felt, because he'd known from the very first that she was the only one for him. Children had not come to them in the first years of their marriage, but though they each had desperately wanted a child they took joy in one another, and did not dwell on blessings not bestowed. It had been enough, in the beginning, to have only one another.
But then the war had come, and Patrick had left her, and as he did he'd thought, to his very great sorrow, that perhaps it was a blessing they'd not had children. Perhaps it would make things easier on her, he told himself, not having to worry about keeping little ones fed. Perhaps it would be easier on her, when he didn't come home, to find a new love and move on if her house was not haunted by a child who wore his face. But of course he had come home, in December of 1945, and eighteen months later he was holding Timothy in his arms for the very first time. Strange, that; Patrick had never believed in God, but he couldn't help but feel as if some great force were at work, as if fate had known what it was doing, holding their child in reserve until after the conflict was over, until his father had recovered from the battle psychosis, until both his parents could focus their time and attentions on him fully.
Those had been happy days, and Marianne had been full of plans, and he had doted upon her, and then it had all crumbled into dust, and now here he sat, alone and brooding.
If Sister Bernadette was eighteen, in 1943, he mused, hoping that a bit of maths might provide distraction enough to dry the tears that still slipped silently down his cheeks, how old was she when Marianne and I wed? It took him a moment to find the answer but then he laughed aloud for the little nun had been no more than twelve, hardly older then than Tim was now. Happy and content in Aberdeen, in the arms of her family, while he had been a man grown and married. She would have been a charming child, he thought. She was a charming young woman, now, clever and kind. Though she was bound by the sense of decorum that came with the habit he had found the Sister Bernadette was possessed of a delightful wit, and he enjoyed it. It was nice, he thought, to have a reason to smile.
And though her words might well have put on the path to the nightmare that plagued his sleep he knew she had not done so with any ill intent, and he would not hold it against her. She had only been trying to answer a question put to her, a question that rose out of his own curiosity. The other nuns, Julienne and Evangelina and Monica Joan, seemed as if they'd been born wearing the habit. Sister Julienne was possessed of an almost otherworldly serenity that ought never be tainted by the concerns of average people, he thought, and Sister Evangelina's tongue was so sharp the very thought of her as a wife was laughable. Sister Monica Joan's mind was so given over to more lofty concerns, even in her dotage, that he rather felt a family life would never have suited her. Sister Bernadette, though, the witty nun with the beautiful eyes; he could not quite wrap his mind around the idea of her spending her life inside a convent. Oh, she was gentle and devoted to her faith, but she reminded him more of the young nurses than her Sisters. And it was that incongruity that had led to his curiosity, he was sure; he simply wanted to understand how she had come to be in that place.
Her answer had surprised him; the music, indeed! But she had been honest and open with him, and he was grateful for it.
With a sigh he raised his head, and checked the clock. It had just gone four; the sun would rise soon enough, and he would rise with it, leave behind his empty bed and go and greet the day. There was time, yet, time to burn, time to linger, and he knew he would not sleep again. And so he turned on the lamp at his bedside and took hold of his book, and all thoughts of the war and his dear departed wife and the approach of his dreaded birthday and the clever little nun faded from his mind as he lost himself in the story at hand.
12 April 1957
To say that she was unhappy with her lot in life would not be entirely accurate, and would in fact be to grossly oversimplify a feeling that was not one of unhappiness, exactly, but rather one that more closely resembled absentia, the sense of something vital having got misplaced, and a hole having grown up in the space where it should have gone, vacant and wanting. Sister Bernadette was very happy indeed, surrounded by ladies she adored, a family as sure and steady as any forged of blood, her every physical need met and her hands and mind given over almost every moment of the day to the most delightful of occupations. Her life was full of music, full of joy, except in the still dark hours between compline and lauds. In those hours her life was quite devoid of anything at all, Sister Bernadette herself small and lonesome beneath the covers of the little bed in her spartan room.
The nurses had one another, at least; no doubt they thought that their evening activities went undetected, that no one knew what they got up to during the great silence, but Sister Bernadette knew. She knew they snuck into Trixie's room and shared their smuggled drinks and laughed and talked and enjoyed one another's company, and went to sleep with their heads full of dreams, dreams of the boys they were seeing, the boys they hoped to meet, the futures that remained just out of reach but tantalizing with promise.
There were no dreams for Sister Bernadette, for how could there be? She had given over all of her personal desires and ambitions the day she took her vows, subjugated herself wholly to the will of the Almighty and the hierarchy of the order, sworn to obey, whatever was asked of her, and never reach for anything at all. The future stretched out in front of her, vast and unchanging into eternity. She would sing and pray and deliver babies and sing and pray again, and she would do it all right there in Poplar, within the walls of the place that was her home, and her prison. Well, perhaps to call it prison would be a piece of melodrama, for Nonnatus House was full of joy and life, but there was no denying that she was not free. The structure that would bind her every day of the rest of her life had already been laid before her feet, and there would be no deviation from it. The same prayers, the same songs, at the same time every day, the same endless whirl of home visits and clinics and meals at the same table. Perhaps one day duty would call her on from that place but somehow she did not think so; she lacked Sister Julienne's serenity, and she was always too busy to take much note of administrative tasks. Her tongue occasionally got her into mischief, and she was not as learned as Sister Monica Joan; there would be no promotion in her future, no posting as Mother Superior elsewhere in the country. She would be, always, Sister Bernadette, doing as others bid, going through the same motions, every day.
World without end, amen.
Such thoughts had begun to plague her somewhere in the second year of her new life as Sister Bernadette. On a fine sunny Saturday she had woken thinking how lovely it would be to catch a bus and wander through St. James's Park and perhaps purchase a lemonade from one of the street vendors, but then she had been almost bowled over by the realization that she couldn't, that such an excursion was not within the bounds of the life that had been set before her. Perhaps she could have planned it, spoken to Sister Julienne and requested permission to go out the following week, but she could not simply walk out the door and follow where her heart led. At that time she had banished such troubles with prayer, spent an extra hour each day kneeling in the chapel, and eventually her despondency had fled.
Not forever, though; like a troublesome dog it came back, time and time again. Each time she fought it, but each time the yearning she felt to be free grew stronger, and she feared that soon the day might come when her prayers were not enough, and the devil's temptation would lead her to disaster.
It was not difficult to say what had brought on these feelings now; it was the nurses, bless them, those dear sweet girls who had all the opportunity that Sister Bernadette lacked. She had stood with Trixie and Chummy and Cynthia, hiding just out of sight and listening to Jenny as she spoke to Jimmy on the phone. In that moment, caught in a clandestine surveillance with those girls ten years her junior, trying to hide their laughter behind trembling hands, she had felt, almost, as if she weren't a nun at all. Jenny had chided her - you are all terrible spies, especially you, Sister Bernadette - but she had been too full of amusement, and had not taken the admonishment to heart. It was a moment of levity, the four of them entertaining themselves, and wanting only for Jenny to be happy, to know that she had found love and to share in it.
Of course, Jenny wasn't the only one with a young man chasing after her; Chummy, dear, sweet Chummy, had been invited out to dinner by Peter Noakes, a quiet, gentle man who seemed quite fond of her indeed. That dinner had resulted in a feverish interrogation by the nurses, and Sister Bernadette could not help but join them.
"He was the perfect gentleman, actually," Chummy said, smiling, and Sister Bernadette could not help but smile, too, for that was to her mind all for the good. Chummy was a wonderful girl, but vulnerable; her height, her background, her eagerness to please left her insecure when it came to dealing with men, prone no doubt to unpleasantness, and knowing that Peter had treated her gently only improved his standing to Sister Bernadette's mind.
"Damn! How disappointing." It was such a Trixie thing to say; she talked as if she were Casanova reborn as a beautiful girl, but Sister Bernadette knew better; it was nothing but talk, for Trixie was a good girl who did not often find herself in the company of a gentleman.
"Trixie!" Cynthia sounded shocked of course, and why shouldn't she be? Sister Bernadette had begun to suspect that Cynthia had even less experience with men than Sister Bernadette did herself.
They were excitable, their chatter so full of life, and she could not help but chime in, then.
"But you are a woman, Chummy, and Constable Noakes is a man," she said, to much feigned shock from the girls. "So I imagine that the natural progression of this relationship-"
"Steady on," Chummy said. The girls looked quite scandalized, as if they couldn't believe what they were hearing, but she plunged on, eager to make her point.
"Will eventually entail some sort of flirtatious behavior, outside the realms of what is considered gentlemanly conduct," she finished with a flourish. Sister Bernadette had been eighteen when she came to London, twenty when she began as a postulant at the mother house, twenty-two when she took her vows, but she had not lived her whole life in a convent. There had been a lad, back in Aberdeen, a lad called Oliver, and he had taught her how to dance and how to kiss and he might have taught her quite a bit more, had she not found out he was stepping out with Mary down the road. It was that, almost more than anything else, which set her feet on the path to London. There had not been much opportunity for romance when she came to the city, not with the war on, but the other nurses had taken her to dances and more than one soldier had spun her handily around the floor and she knew what it was, to wonder if perhaps ungentlemanly conduct might be in the offing, knew what it was to want it, to wait with eager anticipation to see what might happen next, to feel a bit disappointed when nothing happened at all.
Trixie and Jenny were delighted by her comments; they looked as if they'd never heard anything so scandalous before in their lives, and were enjoying it immensely. And somewhere in her heart, in a deep dark corner where she had locked away the girl who had once been called Shelagh, a troublesome feeling of chagrin began to grow. There was a part of her, however small, that wanted to tell the girls about Oliver, and the soldiers, to prove that she was not already shriveled and old and utterly incapable of understanding their desires.
The conversation had turned then from Chummy's date to the prospect of the next dance, and they had fallen upon it with a will, full of enthusiasm. The table had been full of giggles, and Sister Bernadette had smiled, pleased to see them all so happy.
The days had tripped happily along, and then the night of the dance arrived. It was Sister Bernadette who opened the door when Peter arrived; he'd been blushing and nervous, and she had wanted, very much, to offer him some encouragement. No such words had come to her, however - at least none that would have been appropriate coming from a nun - and so she had only gone to fetch the girls, and sent them all spinning out into the night, in their beautiful dresses and their cloud of perfume, their makeup and hair styled to perfection, their laughter ringing in the air.
That was how she had come to be here, now, standing in front of the small mirror in her room, looking at her own reflection.
A stranger seemed to stare back at her; who was this woman, with her severe expression, her nondescript clothes, her small round glasses?
Carefully she reached up and removed her wimple and cap; and for a moment she paused, looking at her own reflection. Without the wimple she was so much less Sister Bernadette and so much more Shelagh; her face softened, without it, her eyes standing out more behind her glasses. Vanity was a sin, but not one she often struggled with; the streets of Aberdeen had been full of prettier girls, and she'd suffered from poor eyesight since childhood, her face hidden behind a steady progression of glasses. But she'd never minded her appearance, so very much, hadn't hated it or cursed it; this face was her face, and it was nice, she thought, to see herself.
It would not be entirely correct to refer to such a thought as vanity, but it was dangerous in its own way; she wasn't supposed to see herself when she looked in the mirror, not any more. There was no more Shelagh, now; she was meant to be a Sister, just another in a long string of women dressed in blue, doing the work of the Lord without pride or personal identity. But the black dog that barked for independence had returned, and she could not stop herself from reaching back and letting down her hair. Other girls had thicker hair, had bouncy curls and a brighter shine, but though it was hardly the sort of hair young girls wished for her own was a rather nice honeyed shade of brownish blonde, and it was soft when she rain her fingers through it. Ten years had passed since last she'd had to worry about how to wear her hair; I wonder what Trixie would do, she thought, if I asked her to style it for me.
In a final flight of fancy she removed her glasses and stepped a little closer to the mirror, close enough to see the picture she presented without her wimple, with her hair falling over her shoulder.
I'm not so bad to look at, she thought. Only no one ever seems to see me.
The moment the nurses thundered down the stairs she had ceased to exist in their minds, she knew, as they now had a much more pleasant prospect to occupy themselves, and she had been forced to turn and retreat, alone and unwanted. No one came knocking on the door asking to see her, and no one rang for her on the telephone. No letters came, for who would send them? The nurses had one another, and though any one of the Sisters would be glad to keep her company - before the great silence, of course - they did not seek her out. She was quite alone in the world, she realized then.
And she was beginning to suspect that all her fears had come to pass, for no prayer fell from her lips as she curled herself beneath her blankets, her mind awhirl with lonesome thoughts. Yes, she had felt this way before, this acute ache for something more, something different, but this time, this time that ache was so sharp she could feel it, physically, in the twisting and turning in her belly. She did not want to be here, alone in this cold room, with no one to turn to. She wanted to wear a pretty dress, and race laughing through the streets with the nurses, to spin around the dancefloor once more. She wanted to feel, if only for a moment, as if she were seen.
4 May 1957
There was something to be said, Patrick thought, for community. It was a prize not particularly valued in his former life; there was no connection at the London between the doctors and their patients, nor was there any real connection between the doctors and the nurses. Neighbors were people he nodded to when he stepped out the front door in the morning, not people he shared meals with. Even friends had been few and far between, their gatherings jovial but restrained by a certain sense of decorum, a certain deference to appearances. And he had been content with that state of affairs, or at least he thought he had been at the time, but now he was beginning to realize just how small his life had been, then, and had much it had grown in the months since his return to Poplar.
He had thought, at first, that the opposite might be true, that his world would shrink down until it contained nothing at all but his son and their tiny flat. There would be no after work drinks with men in tailored suits, no fine dinners out, no jaunts to the theater - his GP's salary was significantly smaller than what the London afforded him, and after all he had no one to take his arm should he venture out from this small quarter of the city. And yet he felt rather as if his life were full to bursting, now; Tim had made a good many friends among the young lads, and Patrick was forever ferrying him back and forth to events with the Cubs. His neighbors called him by name when he passed them on the street, and always stopped him for a chat. The nurses teased him gently and the nuns invited him round for tea and the little one, Sister Bernadette, had even suggested that Timothy's services as a violinist would be most appreciated by the church so earnestly that he was actually considering taking her up on the offer. He was actually considering going to church, that was how much his life had changed. There were people always, people everywhere, and in the daylight his grief abated beneath the endless waves of love that seemed to rise all around him. Poplar was dingy and dirty and everyone was poor, but most of them were happy, too, and that happiness had communicated itself to him. He belonged here, with them, and they welcomed him with open arms.
Especially today, this fine warm day in May, when the sun shone down brightly upon him and he had allowed Timothy to lead him through the streets to the parish hall. The church was holding a fete to raise funds for a leper colony in Ceylon, and Timothy - decked out in his Cubs uniform and smiling so widely that Patrick's heart rejoiced to see it - had been most insistent that they go and enjoy the festivities. It was a Saturday, and while a GP's work was never through Patrick supposed a few hours would be no great sacrifice, and the way Timothy had crowed in delight had been payment enough in itself.
The boy was off like a shot the moment they reached the edge of the party; he'd seen some lads he recognized, and he had a pocket full of shillings to pay for the games and treats the church provided. There were balloons, and a small band was playing on a makeshift stage, and everywhere he turned there were people in their Sunday best, smiling, laughing, enjoying one another's company. You can't put a price on this, he thought, standing on the very edge of the merriment; the connections that bound these people to one another were perhaps the most precious thing in all the world. If there was a need to be met these people rose to the challenge, looked after the sick and elderly amongst them, made sure that no one, not even a widowed doctor with a heart full of ghosts, would have to suffer alone.
As he took in the sight before him his gaze caught and held on someone else who was watching the party from a distance. She held a small cup of something, likely whatever vile punch Fred was dishing out, and her smile, though lovely, seemed terribly sad. Strange, he thought, that he should find her so quickly, almost as if he had been searching for her all along. And perhaps he had; her conversation delighted him more than most anyone else he'd met, and he always looked forward to those quiet moments he could spend in her company. No one else seemed to have taken note of her, and his feet were carrying him towards her almost before he realized what was happening.
She saw him coming; she fidgeted for a moment, he noticed, but then stood a little straighter and fixed a slightly brighter smile to her face as he approached. He almost wished he could have surprised her; there was something unnerving about having those shining eyes fixed upon him as he waded through the sea of humanity that separated them. But then his journey came to an abrupt conclusion, and he was standing just in front of her, and he knew that he must speak.
"Lovely party," he said. It was not the most auspicious of opening remarks, but he had to say something, and he knew better than to speak his true thoughts aloud. To say thank God you're here, or I was quite hoping to run into you, or I've been thinking about you, and I don't know what that means and I was rather hoping you might, or Christ, I hope there's liquor in that punch would be most improper, considering he was engaging a nun in conversation.
"They've outdone themselves this year," Sister Bernadette agreed in her soft, lilting brogue. One of the nurses - Cynthia, probably, though he couldn't quite remember now - had told him once that Sister Bernadette had the most beautiful singing voice of anyone in the convent, and he believed it somehow, for while he had never heard her sing just talking to her often made him feel as if he had wandered into another world altogether. She had the loveliest voice, and he would be content to listen to her say anything at all.
"I suppose the lepers will be quite grateful."
She shot him a strange look, and he reached to smooth back his hair, suddenly feeling a bit sheepish. What does one say to a nun, after all? Ordinarily their conversation would be centered on their work, and anything else would flow quite naturally from that. Here, now, they were not a doctor and a midwife facing a difficult labor; they were just a man and a woman - a nun, really, for she could not ever be just a woman, not dressed like that - trying to talk to one another. That thought left him feeling somewhat uncomfortable, for reasons he did not wish to contemplate.
"How is Timothy getting along, Doctor?" she asked him then.
Patrick could not help but beam at her, for she had just neatly saved them both from the discomfort of his previous comment and solved the conundrum of what they should speak about. As far as topics of conversation went, there was none safer than Tim. Sister Bernadette had been very kind to the boy from the first, and in a small way Patrick loved her for it; it was her kindness there in the kitchen on his first day in clinic that had helped to put the worst of his fears to rest, and it was her suggestion that Timothy join the Cubs that had so encouraged the boy and helped him to make new friends.
"Quite well, actually," he said, smiling. "His marks are good and he's made friends with some of the other boys. He loves Cubs, I can't thank you enough for suggesting it."
The smile she offered him now was not sad at all, and he was delighted to see it. "I'm pleased to hear he's settling in."
Patrick hummed; he was pleased as well, but he did not really know what else to say on the subject. He'd rather neatly covered school and friends and Cubs; what else was left, when discussing a nine year old boy?
"And you, Doctor? Are you settling in all right?"
That was an altogether unexpected question, and Patrick was not at all prepared to answer it. A more circumspect man might have taken a moment to conjure up a polite and not particularly detailed response, or simply said quite well, thank you, but Patrick's mouth had a habit of running away with him, and he was speaking before he realized it.
"Better than I'd hoped, actually," he said. "I enjoy the work, and the people have been kind, and I find I'm rather happy here. But sometimes I can't help but feel as if it's wrong, somehow, to be happy. We're only in Poplar because I lost my wife, and I feel as if I ought to be grieving, and yet, right now, I'm happy."
Oh, Christ, I've said too much, he thought, suddenly mortified. He clamped his mouth shut, but the little nun's expression was neither shocked nor disapproving; she was only smiling, again, that soft, sad smile she'd been wearing when he first saw her from across the party.
"There is no right or wrong way to grieve, Doctor," she told him gently. "And I didn't know your late wife, but I would imagine she wouldn't want you to just give up. I imagine she would want you and Timothy to be happy."
A lump formed in the back of Patrick's throat and he was forced to turn away from her then, for the softness in her eyes and the tender understanding of her tone threatened to undo him utterly. He had not meant to confess to such a thing, had never been one to share his emotions, his heart, with another, but he had felt so comfortable with her that the words had just come tumbling out of his mouth.
In a way he supposed she was right; the last time he spoke to Marianne, that Christmas night when Timothy had fallen asleep in her hospital bed and Patrick had been sitting beside her, holding her hand, she had whispered to him in a voice hoarse with exhaustion, promise me, Pat. Promise me you won't give up. Not like Northfield, not again. Promise me you'll live. He had promised her, had kissed her hand and held it tight until the nurses told him it was time to leave. He had made a promise to her that he would not give into darkness, that he would be there for Tim, that he would live, and no matter how unlikely it seemed he knew now that he was keeping that promise. The nights were dark and lonesome, his dreams full of her and his bed empty without her, but the days were full of hope, and he was beginning to learn how to carry the burden of his grief without being bowed under it.
"She would have liked you," he said, not realizing those words were true until they were spoken. In fact, he imagined Marianne would have been fascinated by the little nun, by a woman who could have chosen, at such a tender age, to set aside the goals of career and husband and children and instead devote herself to God. Marianne would have been full of questions, would have teased out every detail of the nun's life story and told her tawdry jokes to make her blush. They were very different women, he thought, but they were both possessed of beautiful hearts, and he liked to imagine they would have gotten on grandly.
Sister Bernadette's eyes were wide and her lips parted as if she were stunned by that quiet observation, but before she could speak another word Tim came racing up to them.
"They're going to do a three-legged race! Come on, dad, we can join them if we hurry."
He was bouncing from one foot to another, all knees and elbows and boundless enthusiasm. Patrick cast a glance at the little nun, aghast at the very thought, but no help came from that quarter. Tim was tugging on his hand and Sister Bernadette was smiling, and then she spoke, and sealed his fate.
"Go on, then," she said, making a shooing motion with her hands. "Maybe you'll win."
"We will!" Tim declared, and thus defeated Patrick allowed his son to lead him away.
They did not win; they came in dead last and Patrick nearly fell on his face. But Tim was laughing, and Patrick ruffled his hair as one of the volunteers helped to untie them. Their efforts had been comical, to say the least, given that Patrick was twice as tall as his son and their strides could not have been more mismatched, but the crowd had been full of smiles and there had even been a few among them calling out Turners! Come on, Turners! They were surrounded by kindness, and people who wished them well, and grief seemed a very distant thing to Patrick, in that moment. But then something more interesting drew Tim's attention away, and Patrick turned to scan the crowd once more. No conscious thought had come to him, no intention seized upon with rational thought, but he did it just the same, searching every face for the one he most wished to see. But this time Sister Bernadette was nowhere in sight, and he was forced to bite back a sudden, most unexpected swell of disappointment.
15 May 1957
Sister Bernadette did not approve of gossip and she generally did not insert herself into her neighbors' business uninvited; she might deliver advice to an expectant mother, but she would only do so in the role of a midwife, and would not dare offer counsel of a more personal sort without prompting. True, she had been roped into eavesdropping on poor Jenny Lee's conversation with Jimmy, but only at the behest of the other nurses; the transgression was hers and hers alone, but she had been sorely tempted, and surely the temptresses themselves bore some piece of the blame, however small.
Of course she was not wholly without fault; the journey of living a Christ-like life was full of minor detours, for no matter how devout each of the nuns might be, Sister Bernadette included, they were in the end only human, and prone to human failings. Curiosity had been Sister Bernadette's curse since childhood, and she could not fight it now.
She had been passing through the corridor when she heard the soft sound of voices coming from the kitchen, heard the words Doctor Turner followed by the waterfall chime of giggles, and her feet led her there at once. Try though she might to tell herself that she was only going to make sure that the girls weren't disparaging the good doctor her heart knew better; she did not want to stop them talking, and she wanted, very much, to hear what they had to say.
And so she loitered just out of sight of the doorway, listening intently. All four of them were there, Trixie and Cynthia and Jenny and Chummy, perhaps enjoying one last cup of Horlicks before the great silence began and they were forced to hide in Trixie's room with their contraband liquor. She all but held her breath, her mind racing as the words flowed over her like water.
"She told me so herself!" Trixie was saying, with much relish. "Don't deny it now, Cynthia. It's bad luck to lie in a convent. You told me outright that you think Doctor Turner is a very attractive man."
Sister Bernadette felt a blush bloom across her skin that seemed to race from the tips of her toes up to her hairline; this was a racy conversation indeed, and she knew she ought to chastise them, but she wanted to hear what the other nurses had to say on the subject. It took a moment for their laughter to subside, but then Jenny Lee, ever the voice of reason, was stepping in, no doubt desiring to soothe Cynthia's embarrassment.
"I suppose he is, in a way," Jenny said, in a very sensible tone of voice. "He has a very nice smile, and he's got such lovely hair."
"Do you want to run your fingers through Doctor's hair, Nurse Lee?" Trixie teased her.
That girl is incorrigible! Sister Bernadette thought, utterly dismayed by the very idea. Although, Jenny wasn't wrong; the doctor did have lovely hair, dark and thick, and it curled charmingly at the end of a long day, and perhaps if she were the sort of woman who allowed herself to think about men in such a way she might want to run her fingers through it herself, just to find out if it was as soft as it looked, to discover whether he might close his eyes and smile that dear smile while she did. His whole face scrunched up when he smiled, the deep lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes crinkling endearingly, his cheeks full, his gaze sparkling. It was the sort of smile that one could not help but return; even Sister Bernadette was powerless in the face of it.
"And he's quite tall, too," Chummy added, still laughing.
"Of course Chummy would appreciate a tall man," Trixie quipped.
He was quite tall, much taller than Sister Bernadette herself; she had to tilt her head to look up at him, and if he was standing quite close she often felt a sudden urge to go up on her tiptoes in a hopeless attempt to bring their faces onto the same level. Many girls preferred tall men - though not, she suspected, for the reasons Chummy might, but then again Chummy's beau Peter was himself actually shorter than she was, and perhaps the quality of attractiveness was not so much one thing as it was many things, though that was hardly her purview - and he was quite tall, and perhaps that might be the sort of thing a woman might find comforting, somehow, if she were the sort of woman who might be allowed to think such things, which Sister Bernadette was not. Perhaps, she thought, a woman might feel safe, cradled in the arms of a tall man, a man who was broad-shouldered but lean, bigger than she but not so large as to become a threat himself.
"I just meant," Cynthia chimed in then, her voice small and somewhat uncertain, "that he's a very nice man, and he has a rather nice face, and those two things together make him a very pleasant sort of person to be around."
Poor Cynthia, Sister Bernadette thought; the girl had never spent an evening out with a gentleman caller, not once in the years since she'd first come to Nonnatus House, had never even spoken of one, as far as Sister Bernadette was aware. That inexperience made her painfully naive - though Sister Bernadette knew that such a sentiment, coming from herself, was a case of the pot calling the kettle black - and rather insecure around men of any sort, as if she hardly knew what to do or say when presented with one. Her confidence had grown through her work as a midwife but she retained that reticence, still.
"But you said he was attractive," Trixie bore in mercilessly, like a dog with a particularly delectable bone, "even though he's twice as old as you are."
The other three nurses all spoke at once then, their words tumbling over one another.
"Hardly," Cynthia protested weakly, while beside her Chummy said, "Steady on," in a playfully admonishing sort of way, and Jenny added thoughtfully, "Well, sometimes age has its benefits."
"Jenny Lee!" Trixie crowed. "Are you telling me you prefer an older gentleman?"
"They know what they want," Jenny said, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world, as if she had some experience on the matter. That was a troubling thought, but Sister Bernadette knew better than to pursue it; she liked Nurse Lee, and whatever the girl got up to in her private life was none of her business. "They aren't out to prove themselves and they don't go...peacocking about," that particular turn of phrase earned her a chorus of chuckles, "like some of the younger men do. And they're more sophisticated. You can actually have a conversation with them."
"You are a dark horse," Chummy told her.
"I can't believe it. He's old enough to be your father and you like that about him," Trixie said gleefully.
"Oh, he's not as old as all that, surely," Jenny protested.
"But he is! He's going to be fifty next month, I heard him say so himself."
Fifty, Sister Bernadette thought. That made him eighteen years older than she; he had been practically a man when she was born. She had known, of course, that he had quite a few years on her but she had not realized it was so many; perhaps it was his seemingly endless reserves of energy that made him appear younger than he was, or his boyish enthusiasm, or the way he spoke to her as if they were equals. He did not comport himself, she thought, like a man of fifty. And though fifty made him sound almost old she could not think of him in such a way; he was not an old man, not worn down or grown crotchety with the way the world changed around him. He was simply Doctor Turner, with his dear smile and his broad hands and…
Oh, dear, she thought. He was quite handsome; how had she never realized it before? She had been fond him from the very first but his appearance had never factored into that fondness, or at least so she'd told herself. This was not the first time she'd thought about his dark hair or his smile or his strength, and certainly not the first time she had thought about his hands, for his hands had been the first piece of him she'd encountered, gentle hands, broad hands, settling against her hips, pulling her into him. But it was not her place to think such thoughts, and she straightened up, suddenly determined to put an end to the girls' chatter and in so doing hopefully preserve the good working relationship they all enjoyed with Doctor Turner.
Jenny provided the perfect means for her to enter the conversation; just as she resolved herself to interrupt them the young nurse said, "Do you think we ought to do something for his birthday?"
"For whose birthday?" Sister Bernadette asked as she breezed into the kitchen, hoping the movement looked natural and no sign of her shame lingered on her face.
"Doctor Turner's," Trixie told her brightly. "He's going to be fifty next month. On the twenty-first."
"Well, then I think we must celebrate," Sister Bernadette told her. "Fifty is an important birthday, and Doctor is a part of our little family. We must at least have a cake."
"And music!" Trixie suggested, warming to the idea at once. "We could get champagne, too. And gifts! He must have gifts."
A cake would have been more than sufficient, but Trixie did so love any excuse to celebrate, and Sister Bernadette supposed she should have seen this coming; the moment a party was suggested Trixie's mind would be awash with grand - no doubt expensive - plans, but just this once Sister Bernadette did not want to dissuade her. After all, Doctor Turner had taken no vow of poverty, and fifty was a milestone birthday, and if they did not intervene he would mark the occasion all alone. Oh, perhaps he might receive some sort of hand-drawn card from his son, but he had just lost his wife, and somehow Sister Bernadette felt he would surely miss her, on the day, would surely feel particularly lonesome without her there beside him. In her absence, however, the nuns and the nurses could at least ease the worst of his loneliness, and remind him in some small way that he was surrounded by people who cared for him.
"And what sort of presents would you give to Doctor?" Sister Bernadette asked, amused by the idea even as she found herself suddenly troubled; yes, she thought, he should have a gift, but what does one give to such a man? A man well-traveled and well-read, dedicated now solely to his son and his work? What does he need that he does not have? An answer formed, half-realized and insidious, somewhere deep in her heart, but she turned away from it at once as a child might recoil from a dark shape in the corner of their room in the dead of night, not certain of what might be hiding in the shadows but too frightened to find out.
"I'm sure we'll think of something," Jenny said, and that was that. They made their plans furiously in the little time left before compline; Chummy produced a notepad from somewhere and scribbled down all their many ideas, and each of them took on a task to help ensure that on the day Doctor would enjoy himself. Sister Bernadette had volunteered to bring young Timothy in on their scheme, so that they might take the Doctor by surprise, and not give him the opportunity to graciously decline any sort of festivity. He did not often think of himself, and he might feel their efforts would be better spent on someone else, but Sister Bernadette knew better. He deserved this, she thought.
The machinery of the order wore ever onward, however, and she was forced to leave the nurses to their scheming and attend to her duties, leaving behind the world inhabited by young women and entering once more the stark, sterile life she had chosen for herself, though their conversation echoed in her mind through the long, dark hours of the night. Sleep was slow to come, for her thoughts were awash with remembered phrases and the vision of the Doctor's gentle face; they thought him handsome, those young ladies who would never actually pursue him romantically, given his age and his station. But if they thought him handsome, surely someone else would as well; his wife had, no doubt, and there were plenty of eligible ladies in Poplar, widows and others, who were of an age with him and possessed of two good eyes. How long would it be, she wondered, before one of those ladies took notice? Surely the Doctor's life was bereft without the feminine touch of his wife, surely he wanted someone to help with Tim, to make sure the boy was not raised by a bachelor and thus from an early age predisposed to the more distasteful habits of a bachelor's life. Would the day come, she wondered, when Doctor Turner would find himself a nice lady, and take her out to the cinema, and walk through the street with her hand on his arm? Or would he remain forever devoted to his dear departed wife, and spurn all such attachments?
And then there came the most dangerous question of all: why should it make any difference to her? They were colleagues, and no more; friends, perhaps, but then their interactions revolved almost exclusively around their work, and somehow she wasn't sure if she could quantify their connection as something so intimate as friendship. He was a man she knew, a man she was fond of, but then so was Fred, and she had never devoted this much time to thinking about him and his potential romantic entanglements.
Her last conscious thought before sleep took her was simply this: oh Lord, guard my steps, for I fear where my feet might lead.
21 June 1957
Some days, Patrick missed Marianne more than others. Some days were so full of occupation that his mind could not be idle long enough to miss her, and some days were too full of sunshine and Tim's bright smile to be clouded by grief. Some days, though, some days the ache in his chest was so strong it nearly brought him to his knees. Some days he turned a corner half-expecting to see her face, and felt only lament when he found himself utterly alone. Some nights he rolled over in his sleep, arm stretching across the empty space beside him, searching for a hand that would never touch his own again. Some nights, he did not sleep at all, for want of her.
This day had been the latter; from the moment he rose from his bed, sandy-eyed and exhausted, he had thought only of Marianne. Marianne who liked to make a special breakfast for him, who might - if Tim were sleeping soundly - rouse him in a much more enjoyable fashion than she usually did, who would fling her arms around his neck while he sat at the table and tease him, calling him old man while her lips brushed against the rise of his cheek and her hands wandered over his chest. Marianne who always chose the best gifts, and filled his life with joy. He was fifty years old today, and without her, and he wanted nothing more than to go back to bed.
An early night was not in the offing, however, for sometime in the late afternoon Tim had appeared at the surgery, and had been underfoot ever since, full of energy and questions. It was the summer holidays and Patrick was at a loss, unsure of what to do with the boy when he did not have school to keep him occupied. Mrs. Penny was a housekeeper and not a nanny, and he could hardly prevail upon her services at all hours of the day. Other parents in the neighborhood let boys as young as nine stay home by themselves, Patrick knew, but they had only been in Poplar for a few months, and he was not yet entirely comfortable with that arrangement. He had half a mind to send the boy to Nonnatus House; the little nun might not mind his company, at least for the first few days.
"We have to go!" Timothy was saying, leaning in the doorway to his office with a crooked grin plastered on his little face. Despite Patrick's exhaustion and his battered heart he could not help but smile to see his son so happy; he had worried, once, that Timothy might not ever be happy again, that one parent alone would not be enough to sustain him. But Timothy had rallied, surprisingly well, and he was comfortable now in this place that had become their home.
"I've got work to do here, Tim," Patrick answered, gesturing to the mountain of paperwork in front of him. None of it was particularly pressing, but it gave him something to do, kept him away from home and stopped him thinking morose thoughts about the passage of time and the weight of his own lonesomeness.
Tim sighed, exasperated by his father's grown-up sense of responsibility.
"Da-ad," he said in a singsong voice, "it's your birthday. Come on, we've got to go!"
Patrick folded his hands together on his desk, some of his desolation lessening as he found himself more amused than frustrated by Tim's insistence. "And where do we have to go?" he asked. "Do we have a reservation at the chippy?"
When Timothy rolled his eyes Patrick's heart turned strangely in his chest; he wanted to hold onto the joy of this delicate moment, but Tim reminded him so much of Marianne, and he was so lonesome, so utterly bereft without her-
"Come on," Timothy said, and when Patrick did not move he crossed the room and took hold of his father's arm, tugging on it fecklessly. "It's your birthday and you've worked all day. You need to have fun!"
"We're going to the cinema tomorrow, aren't we? That will be more than enough fun for me, I think," Patrick told him, but nonetheless he pulled himself up from his chair, gathered his hat, and let Tim lead him from the room.
It would appear that his son was on a mission, and Patrick was more than a little intrigued. Had something been arranged, then? He couldn't imagine who would have wanted to do such a thing; he wracked his brain but he could not recall having discussed his birthday with anyone but Tim, and he found it hard to believe that the boy could have put something together on his own. There were plenty of people in Poplar with whom Patrick enjoyed a civil acquaintance, but none whom he thought he knew well enough to call friend, certainly none who would go so far as to surprise him on his birthday.
He made some show of taking his time with the locking up, enjoying the way it seemed to irk Timothy, watching as he bounced nervously from one foot to the other, checking his little watch often. Yes, something was afoot, something with a deadline, and Patrick rather wanted to know what it was - after he'd had his fun teasing Tim. At last he could tarry no longer, and so gestured grandly toward the door.
"Lead on, then," he said.
And so Timothy took his hand, and led him out into the early evening. They did not go to the car, leaving it parked where it was and instead making their way along the pavement. It seemed that Tim knew very well where he was going; Patrick could hardly keep up with his determined little strides and sudden turns. At first he had been content simply to follow, but as the minutes passed his curiosity grew; wherever they were going, it seemed they were taking a circuitous route to get there, as if to prolong the journey - or perhaps throw him off the scent. In the end, however, their destination became rather plain, and Patrick's heart once more did a strange little flip in his chest.
The twists and turns of the route had led them, at last, to Nonnatus House. It was the nuns, then, or the nurses, or all of them together, who had arranged to celebrate his birthday. How had they known? Why had they done it? They had paltry few resources and Patrick balked at the idea of them spending any of it on himself; in his heart he hoped most fervently that it had not been Tim's doing, that his son had not gone to those dear ladies with his hat in his hand, for Patrick would die of shame, to have them think him so concerned with his birthday. He would have preferred not to mark it all, rather than have a big fuss.
But Timothy pressed on, oblivious to his concerns, and they made their way up the steps to the front door. Here Patrick intended to pause, to knock and await an invitation to enter, but Timothy did not slow. It was on the tip of his tongue to admonish the boy for his lack of manners, but the moment the door opened there came a great burst of sound from the other side, several voices calling gaily Surprise! all at once.
For a moment Patrick could do more than gape. They had painted a banner that said Happy Birthday Doctor! in bright letters, and hung it just inside the foyer. The nuns were standing there, and the nurses, and Fred Buckle and Peter Noakes and that lad Jimmy who was always hanging around Jenny Lee, and in the very center of them all was the little nun, a rosy blush on her cheeks, and in her hands she held a cake with the number 50 drawn on it in bright blue icing.
He must have looked quite foolish, he thought, with his mouth hanging open, no words coming to him, but then he caught Sister Bernadette's brilliant blue gaze, and every thought he'd had about quietly demurring and protesting this extravagance vanished at once. She was lovely, and looking at him so hopefully, as if she wanted only to make him happy, and of course they all did; they had done this thing, all of them together, to make him happy, and he would be a poor friend indeed if he threw their kindness back in their faces. And so he only smiled at her, and found his voice at last.
"How on earth did you-" he looked sharply at Timothy, who was grinning ear-to-ear, and as he watched his son shot a mischievous wink into the crowd, and the tinkling sound of Sister Bernadette's laughter filled the air.
"A little bird told us," she said in her soft lilting voice. "Now come inside, Doctor. Mrs. Bee has made a beautiful cake, and you can't have any of it until you've eaten your supper."
And so he stepped into the warmth of Nonnatus House, and felt himself enveloped by love and the laughter of women.
Someone had procured crackers of the kind usually only seen at Christmas, and they were all wearing paper hats, their bellies full of a summer meal of chicken and tomatoes and runner beans and summer squash. The truth had come out as they dove into their meal; Trixie had heard him speaking to a patient, mentioning his birthday in passing - though he could not for the life of him recall to whom he'd been speaking, or why he had told them - and she had dutifully passed the news along.
And, she'd told him, grinning, you're part of the family now. We always celebrate birthdays together.
And those few words seemed to him to be the finest gift he had ever received in all his life, for as he ate and laughed and talked with the rest it occurred to him that she was right. They were a family, these women and the men they'd ensnared. They lived together, worked together, were bound together, held one another up in times of strife and came together to rejoice in moments of gladness. The ties that bound them were unshakable, and as he sat there he felt almost as if he could see them, silken cords winding around and through them all, and he knew in that moment that they would never be rid of one another, nor would they ever want to be. And they had welcomed him in, this strange sad man and his lonely little boy, with open arms and not a moment's hesitation.
As the last of the crumbs were scooped up and swallowed down Sister Bernadette slipped away from the table, and though he noted her departure with some concern he found himself smiling broadly when she returned with a fist full of candles. Not fifty of them, not nearly, but there were more than a few, and she placed them all around the rim of the cake, her eyes focused on her task. What a treasure she was, he thought as he watched her work, the way she applied herself so fully to the task at hand, the way she never waited to be called upon but instead set to work at once, knowing somehow innately what was needed, and how to achieve it. It was a rare woman indeed, he thought, who could serve so completely, so graciously, with such a joyful heart, whose knowledge and capability made her such a natural leader, despite her the humility with which she carried herself.
"Mr. Buckle, if you please," she said when she was through, and then Fred rose, pulled a matchbook from his pocket, and with some bumbling and a few singed fingertips he managed somehow to light all those little candles.
"And now we sing," she said, clapping her hands together.
And then they did; oh they did. Their voices rose on the wings of familiar words, the high, sweet sound of joyful women, and above it all her voice, clearer than the rest, pure and bloody captivating; someone had told him once she had the finest singing voice of them all, and his gaze settled on her, utterly unable to look away, his heart captured by her quite completely. Really she was lovely, particularly when she smiled like this, and she was so very good...Patrick was certain he had never known anyone quite like her.
A sharp poke in his side brought him down to earth. It was Timothy, gesturing for him to blow out the candles, which he did to much applause. And then she was cutting the cake, and passing out slices, and Sister Monica Joan managed somehow to take two without Sister Evangelina noticing, only Jenny did and smiled and looked away, and Trixie was saying something about how the cake would be terrible for her waistline and Sister Julienne was watching her indulgently, and Chummy and Peter had their heads close together, and Jenny's lad said something to make Cynthia laugh, and Patrick's heart swelled so full of happiness in that moment he nearly burst with it.
"Do you like it, dad?" Timothy asked him.
Patrick turned to him, and pulled him close, and dropped a kiss on his forehead, thinking how lucky he was, to have such a wonderful boy for a son, to be surrounded by such kindness.
"It's perfect," he said. "Thank you, Tim."
"We're not finished yet, Doctor," Sister Bernadette told him from across the table, and then she bent, and retrieved a small box wrapped in brown paper from beneath the table.
"Oh, Sister, really, you've done so much already," Patrick protested, aghast at the thought that they had gone to such lengths for him, but then a furrow formed in her brow and he was kicking himself at once for having done exactly what he said he wasn't going to do. This was a choice they had made, to share with him, and whatever they presented to him he knew he could only accept it with a grateful heart.
"It's not every day a man turns fifty," she told him as she held out the box.
"And thank God for that," he answered winsomely, accepting the present and her affection with it.
Before Timothy had brought him here Patrick had rather felt as if turning fifty were the worst thing in the world, as if the best of his life were over and all that waited for him now was darkness. They had proved him wrong, the little nun and her sisters and the nurses, had shown him that he was still hale and healthy and that life still held a few surprises in store, not all of them unpleasant. It isn't over yet, old man, he told himself.
He opened the box while everyone watched; it was stuffed full of more of that same brown paper, but there in the middle lay a beautiful silk tie, deep navy in color, a silver tie clip bearing his initials already fastened to it. Shocked by the extravagance of the gift he looked up sharply, and found Sister Bernadette watching him intently.
"It's from all of us," she said, almost defensively, as if she knew what course his thoughts had run and sought to assuage him of any guilt he might feel at accepting such a gift. "Fifty is a very special birthday, after all. You can't expect to be spoiled like this every year."
"Says who?" Trixie asked cheekily, and those gathered around the table laughed, and still Patrick watched the little nun. It had all been her doing, he knew that the same way he knew his own name, though he could not say how. She had organized the banner and the meal, brought Tim in on their little plan, and she had chosen the gift. It was most fitting - Tim was forever bemoaning the state of his somewhat shabby tie collection - and personal, somehow, and he knew then that each time he wore that tie he would think of her as she was now, watching him, blushing and yet not looking away.
11 October 1957
The call came from a breathless Sister Bernadette, late on Friday evening. Tim was already in bed and Patrick left him there; the door was locked and the streets were quiet, and in that time and that place there were few who would worry about leaving a nine year old boy to sleep on his own, just for a little while. The beleaguered Sister, alone with a case of twins, required his attention far more than Tim did, and so Patrick did not hesitate to rush out into the night, sliding behind the wheel of his car and making his way towards the address he'd hastily scrawled on the back of a pack of matches.
He met no traffic, nor did he see any pedestrians along the way; of course, his route did not take him past the pub or the more unsavory district where certain goods could only be purchased after the setting of the sun. Most of the buildings he passed were homes, tenements and blocks of flats, and the inhabitants slept on, blissfully unaware that any excitement was afoot.
But of course it was exciting. When he had first taken this position, what seemed like a lifetime before - strange, how so much could change in such a short time - he had been uncertain as to whether wading into all this childbirth would suit him. It had, after all, not been his specialty, not in school, certainly not in the Army, and not at the London. But the moment he agreed to take over for old Doctor Howard he had begun his study in earnest, determined to try his best for the people who were now his patients, and between the textbooks and the medical journals and his own practical experience he had grown more comfortable with this particular aspect of his practice. He had, in fact, come to relish it. There was something...wonderful about it, about being present from the beginning to the end, an ending that was happy, more often than not. There was something almost mystical about it, the power that brought forth new life, a power beyond his own control. There was something deeply satisfying about reaching the end of a long and complicated labor, and holding a tiny, squalling newborn in his arms, staring into that endless line of precious faces and feeling that he had accomplished something truly worthwhile. The obstetricians had not been held in high regard at the London, but Patrick had long since learned that the most valuable work often received no praise at all.
He pulled his car up in front of the house, double checked the address, and then ducked out of the car, fetching his case from the boot and racing towards the front door at once. There his progress was waylaid, however, for a large, shirtless man sat on the stoop, blocking the entrance and nursing a bottle of whiskey. As Patrick approached the man raised his great shaggy head and stared at him blearily, as if he were having some difficulty focusing his eyes. If that bottle had been full earlier in the evening, Patrick supposed the man would have had good reason to be so indisposed.
"You the doc?" the man slurred out at him.
"I am," Patrick answered. "You would be Mr. Evans, then?"
The man nodded, and then grimaced as if the movement caused him grief. From the house there came the muffled sound of a woman wailing, and Patrick braced himself to race by Mr. Evans and make his way to where he was needed.
"She slapped me," the man said mournfully.
"Who did?" Patrick asked, though he fancied he knew the answer already. "Your wife?" The house was small, and Mr. Evans was huge, tall and broad and bearded, and drunk as a lord; likely his wife did not appreciate having him underfoot.
"No, not her. The little one. Slapped by a nun. Better not tell the lads, I'll never hear the end of it."
While they were talking Patrick had inched past the man gingerly, and at last wrapped his hand around the doorknob. Slapped by a nun, indeed, he thought, torn between the humor of the situation and fear for Sister Bernadette's safety. It would have been quite comical, he thought, to see little Sister Bernadette, barely five feet tall, reach up to slap the bear of a man who sat just beside him now; it would have been strange indeed to see such aggression from a sweet-tempered woman, a woman of the cloth, but then Patrick had never known her to behave in such a fashion, and he could not help but wonder what had precipitated it. If she were only trying to shake some sense into the man that would be one thing, but if Mr. Evans had threatened her...no, Patrick could not laugh about that, not ever.
"Your secret's safe with me," he said shortly, and then Mrs. Evans screamed again, and Patrick was shocked back into action, throwing the door wide and running for the stairs. The shrill sound of her voice led him straight to her, but he was still entirely unprepared for what he saw when he arrived.
The room had been cleaned before the delivery began, of that he was certain. The blankets had been neatly folded and tucked in an out-of-the-way corner of the room, and Sister Bernadette's case sat open on the floor at the foot of the bed, unused items kept in their usual meticulous order, and the used ones piled neatly beside it. But it had been a long time since the delivery began; when she'd rung him from the phonebox down the street the mother had been entering the eighth hour of her labor, and she was expecting twins, and all the other midwives were presently occupied, and there had been no other option for the Sister then but to ring him. And he was grateful that he had, for despite the orderly nature of the perimeter of the room, the bed was reminiscent of a war zone. Blood and amniotic fluid stained the bedsheets and the mother's straining thighs, had been splashed across Sister Bernadette's neat white apron and over her gloves, which lay discarded by the mother's feet. One drawer of the bureau hung open, and from it Patrick could see a corner of a blanket, and hear the snuffling sounds of a baby already delivered safe and whole.
The truly surprising thing, however, was Sister Bernadette. The mother - Mrs. Evans, Sister Bernadette always insisted that he call the mothers by their names - was lying on her back, her arms stretched above her head, her hands wrapped tight around the bedframe while she screamed. And beside her Sister Bernadette knelt, her head bowed, her bottom lip caught between her teeth, both her hands working against Mrs. Evans's swollen stomach.
"Lovely to see you, Doctor," Sister Bernadette panted at him. She did not look up from her task and her muscles were tight with exertion, but the movement of her hands was sure and steady. Patrick recognized what she was doing at once; with twins there was always a risk that one or another of them might be breech, and given how long this labor had lasted, given Sister Bernadette's position, she must have decided to try an external version. It was not the sort of thing Patrick would have expected her to do on her own, was in fact not the sort of thing he would have asked any of the midwives to do, and he was torn for a moment between telling her to stop so he could complete the procedure himself and watching her at her work. She was a determined little thing, and had always seemed to him to be sensible and skilled, but this...this was something else entirely.
"Baby number two is being a bit uncooperative at present," she told him, her words coming out from behind clenched teeth while the mother cried out once more beneath her. "But I think we've...nearly...got him!"
As one they went slack, Sister Bernadette and Mrs. Evans, and Patrick knew by the relief on both their faces that she must have been successful. "It's all right, Kathleen," Sister Bernadette said kindly, patting the mother on the shoulder. "I'm just going to have a look and see how baby's doing." With those words she shifted to the end of the bed, and moved the mother's legs so she could get a better view of the situation.
"I can't do it again, Sister," Mrs. Evans said miserably. She was weak, and tired, and the baby needed to come out sooner rather than later, but having just watched Sister Bernadette successfully turn the baby - and he had no doubt, now, that she had been successful - Patrick was oddly reluctant to insert himself. He simply watched, trying to take stock of things, feeling a bit surplus to requirements given how Sister Bernadette had taken the situation in hand.
"Of course you can, Kathleen," Sister Bernadette told her. "You were made for this, dear. And if you're too tired, Doctor and I will help you."
"Of course we will," Patrick answered at once. "I'm just going to check on this little one first."
He started towards the bureau but Sister Bernadette caught his eye over her shoulder, and it was strange but in that moment he felt as if he could hear her thoughts, could see in her eyes what she was trying to tell him. Her face was ragged and her expression somehow urgent, and he knew, quite without knowing how, that he did not have time to concern himself with the first baby, that it was the second who needed his attention just now.
"Or perhaps not," he added somewhat sheepishly, rushing to join her.
Mrs. Evans was so tired she could not even hold her legs up, could not brace them against the mattress for the final push, and as Patrick approached the bed Sister Bernadette made room for him to position himself beside her.
"Doctor and I are each going to take one of your feet, Kathleen," Sister Bernadette said, and it was strange, really, the way she was giving him orders so obliquely, but he could not deny that it had been an order, and he had braced his hands against Kathleen's right foot quite before he'd realized it, even as Sister Bernadette took hold of the left. "And we're going to help you push. All right? On three, then."
Patrick braced his legs, and ducked his gaze to watch for the baby, to wait for his instructions.
"One," she said. "Two-"
"Oh, Christ, no," Mrs. Evans sobbed.
"Three," Sister Bernadette said grimly, and she and Patrick moved as one, and the exhausted Mrs. Evans did her best to push, and somehow, with Sister Bernadette's steady stream of commands and encouragement, they managed it between the three of them, and baby number two came screaming into the world.
Kathleen collapsed back against the bed, boneless and weeping, and Sister Bernadette reached at once for the squalling newborn.
"Perhaps you'd like to do the honors, Doctor?"
She shouldn't have been beautiful, in that moment. She was exhausted and wearing a nun's habit beneath a soiled white paper apron, and there was a bit of blood across her cheek and her horn-rimmed glasses all but hid her sparkling eyes from view, but she was so beautiful, triumphant and delighted and grinning broadly, and it was all Patrick could do not to tell her. What a marvel she was, this small but indefatigable woman; an unstoppable force, Patrick thought, that's what she is. She'd done the lion's share of the work, and delivered these two babies successfully, had done it all with nothing but her own hands and her own knowledge to aid her; she was, he thought, nothing short of magnificent.
"I'd be delighted," he said, somewhat thickly, and he retrieved the clamps from her case before cutting the cord neatly. The moment it was done Sister Bernadette wrapped the little boy in a blanket and rose to her feet, cradling him close. Her smile was almost beatific; she almost shone, but not with pride, he knew, never pride; if anything, he rather felt as if she underestimated her own worth, most of the time. It was joy, nothing short of pure, radiant joy, beaming from every inch of her perfect face. She loved this work, and he had known that before, but he had not understood quite how much, and seeing her there, holding that child, seeing how happy she was, he was struck by the sudden, strange, sorrowful thought that no matter how many babies she held, none of them would be her own. It didn't seem fair, somehow; he imagined that if she'd ever had the opportunity, she would make the most wonderful mother.
Both babies were weighed and measured and meticulous notes were taken regarding their condition, and Patrick and Sister Bernadette helped Mrs. Evans to get each of them to feed before at last their work was done. Mr. Evans was sleeping on the stoop - if it could be called sleeping, for Patrick was certain he'd simply passed out - and the world was quiet when at last they left that place. They lingered on the pavement for a moment, both of them still flushed from victory, and out of habit Patrick reached for his cigarette case. He was so focused on lighting the thing he never noticed the longing way Sister Bernadette tracked the progress of his hands.
"Why don't I drive you back to Nonnatus House?" he asked her. "It's late, I hate the thought of you cycling all that way in the dark."
In point of fact what he hated was the thought of having to leave her, but he had chosen to couch his concerns in a more gentlemanly way. He wanted to talk to her, about the risk she'd taken, about how wonderfully she'd comported herself under pressure, wanted to hear her soft lilting voice from the other side of the car. He wanted, very much, not to be alone or without her.
"Oh, I can't leave my bicycle," she protested at once.
"We can put it in the back seat."
Actually, Patrick wasn't entirely sure about that, but still, he felt he had to try.
"Thank you, Doctor, but no," she told him with a smile. "I've been cycling through Poplar in the dark for many years now, and I won't come to any harm. And besides, you've got to get home to Timothy."
"Yes, I suppose I do." She'd left him no choice, really; he could not push her any further, not without appearing crass. "I have to say, well done, Sister. There's not many people who could do what you did tonight."
It was too dark to say for certain, but in that moment he was almost positive he saw her blush as she ducked her head, as if she had no idea how to respond to such praise.
"I was only doing my job, Doctor," she demurred.
"And I have to ask - what happened with Mr. Evans?"
She looked up at him sharply. "He told you about that?"
Patrick was watching her intently, wanting to know if it would be all right for him to laugh about it, or if he needed to thrash Mr. Evans as soon as the man regained consciousness. The London had put a tinge of refinement on Patrick Turner, but he was Poplar born and bred and a soldier besides, and he was not incapable of defending a lady's honor with his fists if need be.
"It was silly, really. He refused to leave, and then he spilled whiskey on the bed. He was agitating his wife and he was making such a racket and then he tripped over his own two feet and nearly fell on the bed, and I...well, I didn't handle it well."
At last, Patrick laughed. The thought of it, Mr. Evans bumbling around while his wife screeched at him from the bed, the thought of little Sister Bernadette slapping some sense into the man, was quite the funniest thing he'd encountered in some time.
"I'd said you handled it perfectly, Sister," he said. As you seem to handle everything. Perfectly.
His cigarette had all but burnt out between his lips, and both he and the Sister had places to be, and so they bid one another a fond farewell, and set out to their respective homes. Throughout his short drive Patrick smiled to himself, thinking how full of surprises the little nun was, and how glad he was to know her.
5 November 1957
Poor Paul Wexler was bored out of his mind, and beginning to grow anxious as his mother remained hidden behind the curtain with Jenny and Chummy. Sister Bernadette could see it as she bustled about the parish hall; clinic was nearly over, and all the other mothers had come and been seen to and left, and that meant poor little Paul was all alone, swinging his legs aimlessly as he sat small and uncomfortable on one of the chairs in the waiting area.
That simply won't do, she thought. As soon as I put these spirit lamps away, I'll go and see to him. Someone ought to keep him company, she thought, ought to distract the poor boy - who was barely five years old - and try to make him smile while he waited for his mummy. Sister Bernadette had no idea why the nurses were taking so long with Mrs. Wexler - or indeed why it took two of them to see to her- but generally an appointment running long was not a good sign. The boy was quite young, but still he must have been worried, sitting there all by himself as the minutes ticked by, and Sister Bernadette did so hate to see a child in distress.
And so she dispensed with the spirit lamps as soon as she was able, wiping her hands on the edges of her habit as she stepped back out into the hall. It had been her intention to go straight to the boy, but as she looked out across the room she saw, to her very great surprise, that Doctor Turner was already sitting beside little Paul. He must have finished with his last patient, she realized, and stepped out from behind the curtain for his customary post-clinic smoke - not that Doctor needed an excuse to smoke, he seemed to always have a cigarette between his lips - and stopped to chat with the poor lonesome boy. The very idea of it, Doctor taking it upon himself to keep Paul company, warmed her heart.
They were sitting very close together, their knees almost touching, Doctor Turner's head bowed low while the boy watched the movement of his hands with avid fascination. Sister Bernadette allowed herself a moment to smile at the two of them fondly; Doctor Turner did have such a way with children. They were quite lucky in that regard, she thought, for many of the doctors she'd encountered during her time with the Order had not shown much patience or concern for the smallest of their charges. Not so with Doctor Turner; she supposed it came from his having a child of his own, a child he was raising entirely on his own, now. They were always so sweet together, Doctor Turner and Timothy. Always laughing, and Timothy always minded his father, seemed to adore him, to revere him. There were as many doting fathers in Poplar as there were careless ones and Sister Bernadette had seen them all, but there was something different about the way Doctor Turner dealt with his boy; it was almost as if he believed Timothy was his equal, his partner, and he always seemed quite keen to hear what the boy had to say. He was much the same way with the nurses, too, did not talk down to them and always listened earnestly when they spoke. He was quite an egalitarian man, their Doctor Turner, and Sister Bernadette approved of that particular quality immensely.
Curious as to what held man and boy so in thrall she made her way over to them, and as she came to a stop before them she could hear what Doctor Turner was saying, and she listened closely, intrigued and delighted.
"So you see," he said to Paul, "if you're quite careful, and you follow the steps, when you're done, you'll have-" here he paused for dramatic effect, and Sister Bernadette realized he held a sheet of paper in his hands, no doubt torn from his own battered notebook, a sheet of paper he was dexterously folding and turning beneath skilled hands - "a perfect little frog," he declared. Having completed his task Doctor held out his hand, and displayed a folded-paper frog balanced neatly on the center of his palm.
"It's like magic!" Paul cried gleefully, reaching out to take hold of the frog, examining it closely with delight written all over his face.
"Oh, well, I don't know about magic," Doctor said, "it's quite easy, once you know how."
"Doctor knows all sorts of interesting things," Sister Bernadette said then.
He looked up at her sharply, as if he had not realized she was standing there until she spoke, but when his eyes caught hers his face softened, and he offered her one of his lovely smiles. Nine months he'd been in Poplar, nine months she'd known him, but in all that time she had yet to become accustomed to his smiles. Each time he blessed her with a gentle smile - as he did now - her heart felt full and warm, and she quite lost the thread of her thoughts. What was she supposed to say, in response to such a lovely smile? How could she possibly express the way it made her feel, the joy, the delight that bubbled up within her at the thought that she had pleased him, whether by some clever comment or some tricky piece of medicine or the simple fact of her presence? How could she ever hope to explain to anyone, even herself, how dearly she longed to make him happy, just to see him smile? Such longing was not meant for her; she was sworn to love, yes, to love every person she met just the same, to help them, to comfort them, and to hold no one in higher esteem than another. And yet…
And yet she had found a soft spot in her heart just for him. His quiet voice, his lovely smiles, these things she treasured, and she so looked forward to seeing him, speaking to him, spending time in his company. Sister Bernadette was not a fool; she knew what it meant, when a woman felt such things for a man. But she was not just any woman, nor was he just any man. He was recently widowed and mourning his late wife, and she was a nun, and they were meant to work together, and there was no room in either of their lives for such a silly infatuation.
It's only that it still feels new, spending time with him, she tried to tell herself. You just aren't used to him yet. In time he'll be no more significant to you than Fred is. She did not quite believe it, not yet, but she hoped that if she clung to those words hard enough, for long enough, in time her feelings might fade.
"Can you make other sorts of animals?" Paul asked, politely handing the frog back.
At once Doctor's gaze focused on the boy, and Sister Bernadette felt strangely bereft without the weight of his warm, dark eyes on her face.
"Oh, there's all sorts. There's birds, and butterflies, and even cats-"
"Come on, Pauly, we're leaving," Mrs. Wexler called, somewhat shrilly. She had emerged from behind the curtain quite without Sister Bernadette noticing, and at the sound of her voice Paul leapt to his feet and raced after her. Sister Bernadette frowned; Mrs. Wexler, nearly eight months gone, did not seem happy at all, and she resolved to ask Jenny later what had been the matter. If there was something wrong with Mrs. Wexler's baby, she rather felt she ought to know.
"Damn," Doctor Turner said softly, and Sister Bernadette turned to him at once. She had half a mind to chide him for swearing in the parish hall but his cheeks went a bit pink and his expression was most contrite, and she decided that he did not require her admonishments, for he'd realized his mistake already.
"What is it?" she asked.
He rose to his feet, unfolding lanky limbs and towering over her once again, and for a moment Sister Bernadette wished he hadn't stood; she'd been quite enjoying the novelty of looking down at him for a change.
"I meant to give this to the lad," he said, holding out the little frog. Paul had run off before either of them could stop him, and he'd left it sitting in Doctor's hand.
"Perhaps you could give it to Timothy," she suggested.
"I'm afraid Tim already has more frogs than he knows what to do with," Doctor told her, somewhat ruefully. "I've been making them for him for years now." And then an idea must have come to him, for he smiled at her, another bright, brilliant smile, and extended his hand to her with a flourish. "You should have it, Sister," he said.
"Oh, I couldn't possibly." Now why had she said that? It was just a little paper frog, and he had made the offer with no particular intent in mind; why had her first impulse been to decline it with the same sort of fervor she would have used if he had offered just his hand, and nothing more? "We're not meant to have personal possessions," she added. That was true enough; the shoes the Sisters wore came from the donation bin, and they had no personal adornment save for identical wooden rosaries. Everything Sister Bernadette had owned before her vows had been sent to storage the day she went to the Mother House, and none of it had been seen since. Oh, Sister Monica Joan was allowed her books, but technically the books were the property of the Order. Officially Sister Monica Joan was responsible for the convent's library, and the fact that she kept the books in her room and referred to them as if they were her own was overlooked given her age and infirmity. The Sisters did not keep scarves or photographs or trinkets - not officially. Everyone has secrets, she thought, remembering a photograph she knew Sister Julienne kept tucked between the pages of her prayer book, remembering the gold and silver rosary she herself kept hidden in the drawer of her bureau, a memento that had belonged to her late mother.
Doctor leaned towards her, still holding out the paper frog.
"It'll be our little secret," he told her in a conspiratorial whisper.
It was said in a light-hearted tone, and she knew he meant nothing by it, but just that word secret made her think of other, more dangerous secrets she harbored in her heart, secrets more explosive than a hidden rosary or a crumpled paper frog. She was not meant to have secrets, but she felt as if their number was growing by the day. But he looked so earnest, so genuine in his desire for her to have it, that she could not quite find the strength to decline a second time.
"All right, then," she said, and her voice was unsteady when she spoke. If he noticed the tremor in her words Doctor Turner gave no sign, only smiled when she took the frog from his outstretched hand and tucked it in her pocket for safekeeping.
"Good girl," he said, and walked away.
After compline, after the great silence had begun, alone in her room with no one to bear witness Sister Bernadette at last retrieved the little paper frog and set it down on the top of her bureau. It was a little worse for wear, having been in her pocket all evening, but it still sat up straight, and when she pressed down on its back just so it gave a little hop, as if it had, for however brief a time, come to life. She smiled when she saw it jump, and then sighed. The gladness seemed to exit her body then, borne out of her on the current of her breath, and she stood for a time, staring at that frog.
Such a little thing it was. Likely it did not mean anything to Doctor Turner, who by his own account had made many such creatures, given them to children and thought no more of them. It was just a bit of paper, meant to entertain a little boy for a few moments on a Tuesday afternoon, and then to be immediately forgotten. But she had not forgotten it; she had placed it there on her bureau, where, if she were just another woman and not a nun, she might have placed a photograph or a jewelry box. It was a decoration, a memento, a happy memory, and she was not meant to have it. Yet still she kept it, and as she looked at it she realized she had no intention of throwing it away.
For when she looked at that little frog, she thought of him. She thought of his kindness, his gentleness, his compassion, thought of his eagerness to help, thought of how wonderfully he treated the children of Poplar and his own son. She thought of his smile, and the fall of dark hair she longed to run her fingers through. She thought of the breadth of his shoulders, and the deft movements of his strong hands, so skilled, so capable of completing any task. When she looked at that frog she thought of him, thought of that night outside the Evans' home, when he'd praised her and her whole body had suffused with pride - though shame had followed soon after. She thought of that night inside the Evans' home, when she'd held that little baby in her arms, and Doctor had looked at her as if he had never seen anything so wonderful in all his life.
When she saw that little frog, she thought of him saying good girl, and she shivered.
Our little secret, he'd said, but oh, he did not know the half of it. Did not know that every moment she'd spent alone in his company had become its own little secret, buried in the recesses of her mind to be poured over and treasured later. Every word, every look was a secret, a secret she carried in her heart, growing heavier by the day.
The right thing to do would have been to throw the frog away, to kneel at her bedside and say her prayers and think of him no more. But Sister Bernadette did not do the right thing; she left the frog right where it was, and went to her bed with her thoughts full of him.
20 December 1957
Christmas had always been Marianne's favorite time of year. The lights, the presents, the carols, hot cocoa and angels, ornaments and festive sweaters; she loved it all, every bit of it, and often started celebrating the moment the calendar flipped from November to December.
Without her, Patrick was quite lost.
Their celebrations the previous year had been rather subdued, given that Marianne was in hospital and faring poorly. He and Tim had spent every moment they could by her side, and when they were forced to go back home they had both been quiet and a bit withdrawn. There had seemed, then, to be very little to say. An air of expectation, not altogether pleasant, had hung over their heads as they lingered in that terrible waiting period, unsure whether the future would hold joy or grief. But Marianne had issued orders in a quivering voice and Patrick had followed them to the letter, purchased all the right things and taken them to the hospital where Marianne occupied herself in her waking hours by wrapping them all, neat and precise the way she always did. She'd told him what to say, where to go, how to handle Timothy's questions, and they'd spent the day in hospital with her. She had been, even in the final days of her life, his guiding light.
No such counsel had been provided him, this year. He'd had to muddle his way through, digging tinsel and lights from the boxes that had been stowed in a closet in the flat, trying to hang them in a way that seemed festive, and not terribly sad. He wasn't entirely sure he'd succeeded in that regard; the tree listed perilously to the left, and the angel kept tumbling down from its perch as if it sensed that something was wrong and longed to escape. Those decorations, those were Marianne's things, and touching them without her felt almost sacrilegious. If it had been up to him he would not have marked the occasion at all, but Tim was only ten, and deserved better, he thought; Tim deserved a proper Christmas, or as close to that as Patrick could manage.
With that in mind he had taken an unprecedented morning off from his rounds and driven into London proper, gone to the toy store that had been Tim's favorite and purchased all manner of things. Cricket balls and model planes and little science kits for the experimentally minded child; he had spent far more money than was wise, and purchased far more than any one child needed, but he had done it all in the hopes that on Christmas morning Tim would be happy, and not full of grief. He would do anything just to make that boy smile. Of course, there would be nothing under that tree for Patrick himself, and so - feeling rather whimsical after loading the boot of his car down with toys - he had gone into a department store and purchased for himself the single most garish tie he could find. That, too, he intended to wrap in paper and open on Christmas morning, and he knew that Tim would hate it, and he meant to wear it all day long, just to tease the boy. Anything, he thought, to make Tim laugh.
He had encountered one problem with his plan - he had nowhere to store all the gifts. The flat was far too small, and Tim was far too curious; any corner Patrick might have chosen there would be discovered at once. And so it came to this; he had, under cover of darkness, transferred the toys from his boot to an unused room at the back of his surgery.
It was there he sat now, on a Friday afternoon, surrounded by wrapping paper and bows and boxes, quite at a loss. Patrick Turner had never in his life wrapped a gift - Marianne had a talent for that sort of thing, and he had gladly passed the task off to her - but needs must. He was about to learn.
"Someone here to see you, Sister," Trixie called from the doorway in a singsong voice. Sister Bernadette looked up from the counter where she was dutifully restocking her case, and found Trixie grinning broadly, her hands resting on Timothy Turner's shoulders.
"Greetings, Timothy," Sister Bernadette said. She was more than a bit confused by the boy's arrival; school was out for the holidays, and she would have thought he would be spending time with his father down at the surgery. He did seem so interested in Doctor's work; a curious mind is to be encouraged, she thought. The lad was very bright, and perhaps if he applied himself one day there might be another Doctor Turner striding through the world.
"Hello, Sister Bernadette," Timothy answered, polite as always.
"I'll leave you to it," Trixie told them, and then she vanished, and Sister Bernadette and Timothy were left alone. The boy was smiling, but he seemed somehow anxious, shifting from one foot to the other and fidgeting with his hands. No, not anxious, she thought as she looked at him, excited. And why shouldn't he be? It was Christmas, after all.
"What can I do for you, Timothy?" she asked him gently.
"I need help, and I didn't know who else to ask." He crossed the room to stand beside her, and though he was momentarily distracted by the gleam of her instruments he squared his shoulders and spoke to her in a clear strong voice. "I need to buy a Christmas present for my dad, and I don't know what to get."
"Oh, I see." She was smiling broadly now; she couldn't help it. What a dear child he was! There were some in Poplar who liked to whisper about poor Doctor Turner, raising a child all on his own, how helpless he must be, but as far as Sister Bernadette was concerned he was doing a fine job. "You've left it quite late, haven't you?"
"I just need help buying something. I have money," Timothy told her quickly, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a fistful of coins. "Dad pays me for doing chores around the surgery. I've been saving up for months."
"Oh, Timothy," she sighed, the sight of those bright coins clutched in his little hands nearly bringing tears to her eyes. How sweet he was, how full of hope and compassion - just like his father - how eager he was to do the right thing; it moved her greatly, to see such love from one so young, one who had already suffered such a tremendous loss.
"Could you help me?"
His eyes were round and guileless, and she knew in that moment that she would do nearly anything he asked of her. The boy's quest was a noble one, and his heart was in the right place, and it occurred to her then that if she did not help, the poor Doctor would have nothing to open come Christmas morning. Things were a bit slow, at the moment - as slow as they ever were - and she did have the afternoon rostered off.
"Of course, Timothy," she told him earnestly.
He lit up then, excited and delighted, and though it brought Sister Bernadette great joy to see him so happy a strange, aching sort of sorrow began to pulse within her. It was not the first time a wonderful child had inspired such a sadness, but it was the first time she had ever felt it quite so strongly. All of these children, these sweet babes who filled her days, they were all lovely, but each evening when the sun set they were tucked up safe in their mother's arms, and she was left alone. No matter how she might love them, treasure them, each baby she held must inevitably be turned over to someone else, and she would never know what it was, to have one of her own. At twenty-two she had thought that she could bear such a sacrifice; at thirty-two, she felt it growing harder by the day. But Timothy was not her child, no more than were any of the babies she'd delivered, and melancholy would not change that fact. She would love him, and help him, and she would say her prayers, and all would be well.
"I told Dad I was going to play with Jack. He thinks I'm going to be gone until supper. Could we go now?"
"Oh, Timothy! You shouldn't lie to your father," she scolded him, somewhat mortified that at ten years old he was already so competent a manipulator. Perhaps he could use more of a woman's touch, she thought.
"But Sister Bernadette, it's Christmas! A lie isn't a sin if you do it for the right reasons."
"Just let me get my coat, Timothy," she told him. "And then you and I are going to the shops, and we are going to have a very long conversation about comparative morality."
His expression was so confused she could not help but laugh, and she reached out to embrace him quickly, thinking only what a dear child he was.
Shopping with young Tim turned out to be an experience Sister Bernadette would never forget. Though he had no notion of what to purchase for his father he bulled through each shop, touching everything in sight, making suggestions and dismissing them again almost as quickly as they'd come to him. They must have made quite a sight, she thought, the nun and the boy, perusing the menswear section and laughing loudly. At ten years old Timothy was nearly as tall as she was, and Sister Bernadette was certain that must have only added to the strangeness of their appearance. But they were both happy, and enjoying one another's company immensely.
He'd been telling the truth, about having saved up for quite some time. The coins in his pocket jangled merrily, and in the end they were able to purchase not one but three presents for the good doctor. A new hat, as his own was looking a bit weatherbeaten, and - at Tim's insistence - a model Spitfire. Apparently the doctor quite enjoyed making models in his free time, and Tim wanted him to have one of his own. Likely the lad's intentions were a tad selfish on that score - apparently he did not approve of his father's attempts to step in when he was assembling his own models - but it was such a sweet idea Sister Bernadette could not bring herself to tell him no. The final item had been her suggestion, and though Tim had seemed uncertain she had been quite firm in her conviction that it was the right choice. It was a sky blue jumper, heavy and warm and soft, and when she'd seen it she had almost blushed, to think how fine the doctor would look should he choose to wear it. The color would suit him, she thought, and after all, surely he would have occasion to dress more casually before the winter was out. Perhaps it was not proper for her to be thinking about the Doctor in a casual situation, but it was for a good cause, and she decided that must make it all right.
Together Sister Bernadette and Tim ferried their parcels back to Nonnatus House where she agreed to keep them safe until Christmas Eve, and then they walked, hand-in-hand, back to the surgery. Tim was full of questions, about the order, about their Christmas rituals, about the more interesting cases Sister Bernadette had assisted with recently, and she indulged him on every score. It was quite the loveliest afternoon she had spent for some time.
When they reached the surgery Tim went barreling upstairs into the flat; Sister Bernadette waited until he was safely inside, and then she turned to make her own way home. But a light was on in the surgery, and it drew her gaze; was he still there, then, she wondered, the good doctor working hard on a Friday evening?
She told herself she was only going to make sure the light had not been left on by accident, that if she found Doctor Turner she would only tell him that Timothy had made it home safely and bid him good-night, but deep in her heart she knew her real reason for walking into the surgery. After spending the afternoon in the company of his son, searching for Christmas presents intended for him, she longed to see his face, to hear his voice, to speak to him in the still of the evening without an emergency hanging over their heads. She wanted to feel, if only for a moment, as if she belonged here in this place, with them. With him.
The light sound of a footstep set Patrick's heart to racing; the gifts were strewn out everywhere, and he did not have time to hide them.
"Wait, Tim-" he called desperately from his perch upon the floor. He was buried under a pile of paper with a model Spitfire in his hands and there was no time for him to dispense with it, but he needn't have worried. When the door swung open it was not his son standing there, but Sister Bernadette, the late afternoon sunshine streaming in through the windows seeming to give her an almost heavenly glow as she stood there in the doorway, smiling at him.
"Stand down, Doctor," she said, blue eyes twinkling, and he could not help but laugh. "Timothy is upstairs, and your secret is safe."
"Thank God for that," he said. "Did you need something? This can wait-"
"I should think not, Doctor," she chided him lightly. "It looks like you've got your work cut out for you, and Christmas only four days away."
"I'm making a hash of it," he admitted, looking at the pile of pitifully lumpy parcels he had assembled so far. "I never did learn how to do this properly."
"Would you like some help?" she offered.
It was her vocation, he knew, her calling in life to be kind and helpful, to be compassionate and always willing to step in wherever she was needed, but he could not help but think she must have been some sort of angel, too good, too kind, too wonderful to have been entirely human. He had never, in his life, met anyone quite as lovely as that little nun.
"Oh, I'm sure you have more important things to do," he said. He said it because he felt that he must, but in his heart he hoped that she would not leave him. It would be quite nice, he thought, to sit there with her, to have some help and someone else to speak with while he worked.
"I was only seeing Timothy home," she said. "I've nowhere to be until supper time."
"In that case, Sister, I will take all the help I can get."
She laughed at him, but she did not need telling twice. She glided across the floor and settled herself primly right across from him, smoothly folding her legs beneath her habit and reaching for the nearest toy to hand. Her hands moved quickly, but with purpose, gathering paper and scissors and ribbon, and for a moment Patrick simply watched her, wondering if all women were born with the innate ability to wrap presents immaculately, or if it was a course they took in school.
"I suppose Tim had fun with Jack, then?" he asked, his eyes still following the progress of her delicate hands. He didn't know what to say to her in this rather unprofessional moment, but always in the past Tim had been a safe topic of conversation, and he reverted there at once.
A strange look crossed her face, and stranger still she refused to meet his gaze. "Yes," she said after a moment. "I suppose he did." And then she straightened slightly, tossed her meticulously wrapped present aside and reached for another. "I must say, Doctor, this is quite a lot of presents for one boy."
Suitably abashed Patrick ducked his head, and resumed his efforts with the Spitfire. "I got a bit carried away," he admitted. "I just want this to be a good Christmas for Tim. I want him to be happy."
He was not looking at her, but her voice was warm when she answered him. "I'm sure he will be. He doesn't need a lot of presents, though. He just needs you to be there for him. He loves you very much."
Patrick looked up at her sharply, but she was focused on her task, and so did not see the question in his gaze. It was the truth, and he knew it, but still he could not help but wonder why she'd said it, why she'd felt the need to reassure him so. Not for the first time he found himself wondering about her, her past, her family, who she had been before she took the veil. Those were questions without answers, he knew, for the Sisters turned aside from their old lives the day they took their vows, and to ask a Sister about her past was to acknowledge the dark truth that beneath habit and veil she was, at heart, a woman like any other. Patrick had not been raised in the church, but even he knew better than to tread into those dangerous waters.
"And if you've no plans for Christmas Day," she added, "you're more than welcome to join us at Nonnatus House."
"Thank you, Sister," Patrick told her earnestly. "I would like that, very much."
And he would, knew he would like to spend the day surrounded by the nuns and the nurses, watching them all dote on Tim, hearing them laugh, playing with Tim's new toys. They had found a family of sorts in Nonnatus House, and Christmas was, after all, a time to be spent with family. The conversation flowed a little easier after that, on to safer, less personal topics as they worked together, Patrick and Sister Bernadette, and between them they wrapped each gift and then stowed them away in a vacant room of what was to become the new maternity home, come the new year. And when she left him, bidding him good-night in her soft lilting voice, striding off into the gathering shadows, he watched her go, and wondered somewhere in the back of his mind how lovely it might be if she never had to leave him again.
25 December 1957
It was actually snowing, as Timothy and Patrick made their way up the stairs towards the front door of Nonnatus House. A beautiful Christmas morning had given way to a beautiful Christmas afternoon, the air chilly but not unbearable, great, fat white snowflakes drifting down to melt on Timothy's woolen cap. Though he would never have believed it, just a few short days before, this Christmas morning had brought them both more joy than sorrow. Marianne's absence was keenly felt, stabbing him with every breath he took, but he found solace in Timothy's smile, in knowing that the lad had enjoyed himself and despite his grief was pink-cheeked and pleasant, enraptured with his gifts and duly grateful for them. He found solace in knowing they would not eat their Christmas lunch alone in their little flat, but would celebrate the day surrounded by the makeshift family that had so welcomed them both. Marianne would be proud, he thought, to see how well he had rallied, how hard he had tried to make everything perfect, how wholly he had embraced his life and how hard he strove to live that life to its fullest. There had been a time, years before, when grief had crippled him, but for the sake of the love he bore his wife, for the sake of this dear boy he loved more than his own self, Patrick had found the strength to carry on, and he knew that would have made her glad, and he clung to that thought as he journeyed through this holiday season.
It was Trixie who opened the door for them, wearing a pair of angel's wings from the previous evening's nativity play and grinning fit to burst.
"Oh, do come in, Doctor Turner," she said lightly as he and Timothy kicked the snow from their boots there by the door. "Mrs. Bee has put together an absolutely lovely spread, and Sister Monica Joan has decorated everything in sight. You simply must come see it."
"Thank you," Patrick said, but she'd already turned her attentions to Timothy, asking him all about the presents he'd received and laughing as got tangled up in the process of trying to remove his scarf. It was Christmas, and he was excited as every child ought to be on that day, and Patrick's heart was light as he slipped free from his own coat.
He did not like to turn up anywhere empty handed, particularly not when he was being hosted for lunch on Christmas day, but he found himself in a peculiar position. As he'd learned from Sister Bernadette the nuns could not accept gifts of any kind, and to try to pressure them into taking something would be crass in the extreme. It would have been strange if he had arrived with gifts for the nurses - he would have looked, he thought ruefully, like a dirty old man vying for the affections of a bunch of pretty young girls. Mrs. Bee had no doubt prepared a beautiful lunch and his own skills in the kitchen were sorely lacking, and the Nonnatuns had received enough Christmas biscuits to feed an army; they had no need of any sweet he might procure. There was nothing he could bring, except himself and his son, nothing except a small item tucked in his coat pocket. It was such a small thing, hardly remarkable, and yet he had fretted for most of the day over whether or not he ought to bring it at all. He still had not decided if he had the courage to deliver it to its intended recipient; let's just see how the day goes, he told himself. He would leave it there in his coat, and decide the rest later.
There was a chorus of happy exclamations as they entered the dining room, for the other guests had all gathered round the table. Sister Julienne, Cynthia, Sister Evangelina, Jenny Lee, Sister Monica Joan, Trixie, Fred, Chummy and her husband, even Mrs. Jenkins, the old lady Jenny had taken under her wing, they were all together, and there on the other side of the table, smiling softly and not quite meeting his eye, was Sister Bernadette.
She looked no lovelier today than she did any other day, but such was the nature of habit and wimple. Everything was always the same; where other young women of her age might change their hairstyle or their makeup or their nail polish Sister Bernadette remained immaculately consistent. But he rather appreciated the unchanging vision of her, for while she was no more beautiful today than any other day, she was beautiful enough for a lifetime. As he stepped into the room she looked up at last, and her blue eyes sparkled and a wide smile tugged at her lips. That smile moved him, called to something deep inside him, for it he had come to know its meaning, after a fashion. Sister Bernadette smiled like a woman who had grown up self-conscious and uncomfortable, and most often her smiles were soft and sweet but close-lipped, as if she had trained herself not to show her teeth when she smiled. There had been times, a precious few, when she forgot her fears and smiled at him wholly, completely, and his heart sang each time for to his mind it was a sign that she was comfortable with him, and had no cause to fear what he might think of her, that she was too delighted to be shy. Such a smile she gave him now, and he could not help but return it.
But then their eyes met, and she gazed at him for a moment before flushing scarlet, that blush racing from her neck almost up to her hairline, and then she turned away, muttering about fetching something for the meal. Her sudden disappearance did not trouble him, however, for in her blush and her display of discomfort he had found the answer to a question that had been troubling him most of the morning.
It had come as a great surprise when Timothy, having opened almost all of his presents, suddenly froze and dove beneath the tree, coming up with his arms laden with parcels. He had spilled the gifts out onto Patrick's lap, grinning, and left his father quite speechless. After all, Patrick had hardly been expecting to open anything on Christmas morning, apart from the garish tie he'd bought for himself on a lark. How on earth did you manage this? He'd asked his son, marveling at the bounty laid before him, and Timothy had laughed, and refused to tell him anything all.
From the nature of the gifts it was plain that someone must have helped the boy. The Spitfire he'd purchased - so you can have your own, and quit playing with mine - could have been picked up anywhere, at any time, could have been purchased by Timothy alone. But the hat was quite fine, and not the sort of thing a child might choose, and the jumper...Patrick had run the fabric through his hands, sky blue and soft, and known then that a woman must have helped Timothy pick it out. The color of it, the cut of it, was really quite nice - much nicer than the rest of Patrick's meager casual wardrobe - and from the moment he'd laid eyes on it he'd been wondering if it was her doing, if she had been the one to take Timothy to the shops, to help him wrap the parcels and secret them away until it was time for them to be opened. Though he had previously decided to wear his horrible new tie to lunch as a way to tease his son he had found that his mind changed as he looked at the jumper. It was lovely and warm, and perhaps, he thought, perhaps if he wore it to lunch, he might find out for good and all who had assisted Timothy with his Christmas shopping.
Patrick rather felt he had the answer, now, and he slid into the chair that had been left open for him with a wide smile on his face. Somehow, though he did not know how, Sister Bernadette had done this kindness for him, had helped his son and chosen presents she thought he might appreciate. She had chosen very well indeed, for he had worn hat and jumper both to lunch, and if her bright blush was anything to go by he was not the only one who appreciated that jumper. She likes me in blue, he thought, remembering the navy tie he'd been given at his birthday. It was strange and bemusing and not altogether unpleasant, to know that Sister Bernadette had devoted even a moment to considering his appearance and what sort of color might favor him best. Surely she had only done it as a kindness to Tim, but still, the thought remained - she had chosen these gifts, for him.
And then she came shuffling back in, the roast in her hands.
"Right, then," she said as she set the gleaming silver tray upon the table. "Who wants to carve?"
The eyes of the ladies danced merrily from Fred to Patrick to Peter, wondering which of the men would volunteer himself for the task.
"I reckon it oughta be the doc," Fred said merrily. "He's got the most experience with knives."
A titter of laughter twinkled throughout the assembled guests, and, recognizing his cue, Patrick stood.
"I'd be happy to, Sister," he said.
In response she reached out, holding out the carving knife for him, and he took it, his fingertips grazing her own, his eyes on her face, following the line of that delightful blush, his mind distracted by all sorts of thoughts a man ought not have about a nun.
"I can't thank you enough, Sister," Doctor was saying as they lingered there by the doorway.
The afternoon had been completely lovely, in a way that only a Christmas spent in the company of loved ones could be. Timothy was a charming child, and everyone marveled at him, and the laughter and conversation had flown easily. There had been crackers and much merriment over their contents, and everyone had eaten three helpings of everything, even the nuns who were sworn to abstain from such overindulgence. And now Timothy was leaning against the door, almost asleep on his feet, and Doctor had shrugged into his coat but held his new hat in his hands, looking almost reluctant to leave. Perhaps he was; it must be difficult for him, she thought, on this first Christmas without his wife, knowing he and Tim would be returning to a quiet, empty flat. But they had the warmth of Nonnatus House to surround them even there, and she hoped they would be all right in the end, these two boys who had grown so very dear to her.
"You're always welcome here, Doctor, you know that," she told him primly, hesitant to accept gratitude or compliments as ever.
A strange look crossed his face, as if he were trying to decide whether or not he ought to speak, and then he smiled.
"I don't just mean for lunch. I mean, thank you for this." He held up his hat, and Sister Bernadette ducked her gaze, hating the blush that stained her cheeks, the way she could not hide her delight. These gifts she had selected for him seemed to have met with his approval, and he did look so very fine in that blue jumper. Just as she'd always known he would.
"It was Timothy's idea. He just needed a bit of guidance."
"Still. Thank you, Sister." He set his hat upon his head at a jaunty angle, and then reached into his pocket, pulling out his car keys.
"Timothy?" he said, turning to his son. The boy cracked an eye open, exhausted and yet cheerful as ever. "Would you like to start the car?"
"Can I?" Timothy asked, coming awake all at once, grinning broadly.
"Yes," Doctor said, laughing, and then Timothy snatched the keys from his open hand and darted out the door.
Which left them suddenly, conspicuously alone, and Sister Bernadette could not help but stare, wondering why the doctor had gone to such lengths to make certain they were not observed. Surely he meant nothing untoward, but still, he had done this quite deliberately -
"I know I can't give you a present," he said then, and her heart began to race in her chest. "But it's Christmas, Sister. And I do want to thank you. So, I've brought you this."
He reached into his coat pocket once more, and then, with a flourish, held out his hand, presenting to her a small, green paper frog, neatly folded.
The other frog, the first frog, had sat proudly on Sister Bernadette's bureau for weeks now, and though she loved it even she could admit that it was a bit slapdash, assembled in a hurry from plain white paper. This frog was somewhat larger and significantly neater, and green to boot; a proper frog. Made by his own hands, not to entertain a bored child but meant for her, just for her; our little secret.
She should not accept it. She knew that, knew it as well as she knew her own name, but she wanted it. Deep in her heart she wanted this, this tangible reminder of his regard, this thing that he had made just for her. She wanted this, wanted to stand alone with this man, wanted to see his smile and his warm, dark eyes, wanted his voice and his time and his gifts and his heart, all to herself. These things she could not have, but oh, how she wanted.
"Please, Sister-" he started to say, but then she reached out and took the frog from him quickly.
"Thank you, Doctor," she said. "I shall treasure it."
Even if I shouldn't. Even if you'll never know how much this simple thing means to me. I shall love it always.
For a moment he simply stood there, smiling at her, but then it seemed he got a hold of himself, remembered where he was and that his son was waiting for him out in the cold.
"Merry Christmas, Sister," he said softly, and then he turned, and opened the door.
As he stepped through it she stepped up, intent on closing the door after him, but then, to her surprise, he turned back to her. His lips parted, as if there was something he meant to say, but then his eyes widened and all power of speech seemed to desert him as his gaze caught and held on something just above the door.
Sister Bernadette followed his line of sight, and then stopped breathing altogether as she saw that someone had hung a sprig of mistletoe there, just above their heads.
As one their eyes snapped back to one another, though Sister Bernadette knew her own gaze must have been much more fearful than the doctor's. It was just there, the mistletoe, and they both knew what it meant, what they were meant to do now, what they could not ever do.
Does he really expect...surely he doesn't think...but oh, what if he did?
Her thoughts ran riot; she had not been kissed by a man in over a decade, and even then the kisses she remembered had been a bit clumsy and not entirely heartfelt. What would it feel like, she wondered, to kiss the doctor now? Could he tell just by the expression on her face how that thought excited her as much as it terrified her? He was older, and wiser, and more experienced than she; he would know how to kiss a woman, she thought, would know how to kiss her in ways that left her weak in the knees.
But surely he doesn't feel such things for me, she thought. How could he? He was handsome and strong and knew so much more of life, and he'd only just lost his wife. Surely he thought of her as no more than a friend, a warm acquaintance, a nun.
But if he did not wish to kiss her, why then had he lingered so long? Why did he not simply laugh and turn away? Why did his gaze seem almost hungry, as those dark eyes bore into hers?
So many questions, and yet no answer was given. Doctor Turner broke the silence at last, as they both knew he must, simply wished her merry Christmas again before marching smartly away. She watched him go, closed the door as he slid behind the wheel of his car, the little frog clutched in her hands, her heart racing, her thoughts a mess she could not untangle. As if of their own accord her feet turned and led her up the stairs and down the corridor to her little room, where she set the new frog down next to the old one, and stared at them both, fingertips pressed to her lips and heart full of questions.
13 January 1958
The doctor slumped back against the wall, defeated. His face was ashen, his hair unkempt, his clinical coat splashed with blood. The last few hours had been a torment, and it had all been for naught, for mother and baby were both lost to the world, now. The obstetrics flying squad had come too late, and now they filled the delivery room in the new maternity home full to bursting, but there was nothing to be done; the babe had not taken a breath in this life, and his mother never would again.
There's too many people, Sister Bernadette thought numbly. They were all standing around as if waiting for someone to tell them what to do, but she could see that Doctor did not have it in him to take charge of the situation; he'd been awake for more than thirty hours, had delivered four babies in that time, and now they'd lost this one. God only knew when last he'd eaten, and he'd not seen his son for hours, and he'd just suffered such a crushing blow; poor man, she thought.
"Can you see to them?" she asked the nearest member of the flying squad, gesturing vaguely to the poor mother and her wee one. Her question seemed to snap the man out of his trance, and he nodded at once, turning to his compatriots and beginning to issue orders in a low voice. Assured now that the patient - for she was still a patient, even now, after all of this - would be well taken care of she carefully peeled off her bloody gloves, and crossed the room to stand in front of the Doctor.
As she approached he looked up, his eyes huge and dark and full of grief, but he did not speak, only stared at her, something pleading in his expression as if he hoped - as if he prayed - she might tell him that everything was all right, that the mother had come round, that hope was not lost. Sister Bernadette told him no such thing, for lying was a sin.
"There's nothing you can do for her now, Doctor," she told him softly. He flinched as if the words hurt him, and looked away.
This won't do, she thought. He could not go to pieces, not now, not here, not where other people could see. Doctor Turner was the Doctor, their Doctor, and people must always think him capable and clear-headed, must trust him to handle all of their emergencies, their terrors, with grace and poise. Right now he looked as if his legs might collapse out from underneath him any moment, and the flying squad was bustling around, and all Sister Bernadette could think was I have to get him out of here.
"Come with me, Doctor," she said, but the Doctor did not budge. Fear began to gnaw at her heart, then; it was not only the patients and people of Poplar who needed to believe their doctor was invincible. She needed to believe it, too, needed to believe that he was strong, that when her knowledge and experience failed her he could step in, and right the ship. Just now he did not look like a fearless captain; just now he looked wrung out and so terribly sad, and she could not bear to see him like this.
All unthinking she reached out and laid a gentle hand on his arm.
"Please," she said again.
This time he roused at the sound of her voice, though she could not say whether it was the word please or the touch of her hand that moved him. It didn't matter, she supposed, not really, because now he was walking, following along as she led him out of the delivery room.
There was no one waiting for that poor girl in the lobby; her husband was away at sea, and would not learn of what had befallen her for weeks yet. Though that would be a terrible day when it came a small, selfish piece of Sister Bernadette's heart was grateful that she did not have to face him now; she wasn't entirely sure that she could have withstood the flood of his grief, and she was certain that the Doctor could not.
Given the lateness of the hour the maternity home was all in darkness, and she led him silently down the corridors toward his office, her hand still clutching his forearm, pulling him along with her. Though her rational mind tried to excuse her need to touch him as no more than an attempt to keep him moving her heart knew better; in this moment when every breath she took was sharp with the pain of this failure she wanted, more than anything, to have something to hold on to. And the doctor was warm, and solid, the muscles of his arm heavy and strong beneath her hand, and he comforted her, more than words could say.
When they reached his office she led him straight to his desk, and into his chair. He sat with a sigh, her hand leaving him at last as he propped his forearms on his knees and hung his head low between his shoulders. The continued silence was unnerving, but she hardly knew how to fill it; this was not a moment for platitudes, and she had nothing else to offer him. There were two chairs facing his desk, and so once Sister Bernadette was certain the doctor was not in danger of immediate collapse she picked one of them up and brought it around the corner of his desk, sat it down and then perched in it herself, facing him, close enough to touch his bowed head.
And she wanted to, oh, how she wanted to, to reach out and run her fingers through his thick dark hair and whisper to him softly. Such comfort was not hers to give, however, so she only bowed her head, and began to pray in a soft, quiet voice, Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…
The familiar words fell from her lips without any direction from her conscious mind, but they brought her some peace, as they always did. It was not her place to question, to rant and rave against the injustice and the cruelty of the world. The whys and the hows were God's responsibility, that's what she believed, and no one person could ever hope to understand every piece of his divine mystery. Perhaps this tragedy was part of God's design, and her inability to fathom why did not matter in the slightest.
As she prayed the doctor slowly came back to himself, sat up straight and reached into the pocket of the jacket slung over the back of his chair, rummaging around for a moment before he caught hold of his cigarette case. He pressed one between his lips with shaking hands, but the match proved too much for him; on the third failed attempt Sister Bernadette took the matches from him, and struck one steadily, holding it out until his cigarette caught before carefully shaking it until the flame dimmed, and then disappeared.
"Thank you, Sister," the Doctor said then. "I'm sure she would have appreciated your prayers."
There was no malice in him, no snide insinuation; he meant those words earnestly, despite his own lack of faith. It was not a subject that had come up between them in the months - nearly a year - since they'd first met. She was a nun, and he was an atheist, but they were united in their mission to care for their neighbors, to give everything they had to other people, and that common ground had been more than enough for them to build a solid friendship.
"And you, Doctor?" she found herself asking. "Do you appreciate them?"
"I envy your faith, sometimes," he said, puffing determinedly on his cigarette. Though she never would have said such a thing aloud in that moment she could not help but think how badly she wanted one of her own. Nuns could not have personal possessions, and they had no money of their own; there was no way for her to purchase and keep her own cigarettes, and even if some way could be found the Order believed that a body must be nourished, and not poisoned. No cigarettes, no tobacco, plain food and regular exercise; such were the edicts of the Order. But if he had offered her one in that moment...no, she would not have rejected it.
"I think such certainty must make things easier," he continued. "You can pass your burdens along to someone else, and then rest. In moments like this, I'd like to do the same."
Sister Bernadette stared at him, aghast; proselytizing was not within her remit, but she felt rather keenly the importance of this conversation. It would not do to alienate him, to make him defensive, to insinuate that he was somehow lacking or in the wrong - though her faith was dear to her and she wanted, very much, to share it with him, to know that he was comforted by it, as was she. The Doctor wanted someone to help carry the weight of his burdens, longed for the chance to rest, and while she knew ought to tell him to kneel and give himself up to God's unfathomable mercy there was a piece of her heart that wanted to take those burdens for herself, wanted to give him the shelter he sought within her own heart.
"But you don't believe, do you?" she asked instead, timidly.
"May I answer your question with one of my own?"
They were treading on dangerous ground, alone in his office after hours, each of them raw and vulnerable after suffering the loss of their patient. Sister Bernadette did not want this conversation to become an argument, did not want to push him away or to in turn discover some darkness in his spirit that would temper her own regard for him. But he was looking at her openly, earnestly, not cross or demanding but with all the trust of a frightened child, and she could not rebuff him.
"Yes," she whispered.
"Why do you believe?"
It was the question she had expected, but delivered in a voice that was soft and full of doubt. She turned it over in her mind, wondering how best to explain herself. Truth be told she could not recall there ever having been a moment when her belief was in doubt; her mother had been a Catholic, but her father was Church of England, and she'd grown up attending services, learning the stories of the Bible at church, learning the stories of the Saints at her mother's knee. Always she had known that God was real, had known it in some intrinsic, primal way; her soul felt his presence with all the surety of her own heartbeat. Never once had she strayed from the path of faith, and when the calling had come upon her she had answered with conviction, had donned her habit and felt blessed by the certainty that she was making the right choice, that she was going exactly where God wanted her to be. There had been times when her faith in that calling had wavered but never, not once, had she questioned God himself.
"There is too much about our world that cannot be explained any other way," she began slowly. The doctor was a scientist, after all, and he would need a logical explanation. "There are too many coincidences. That our earth should be here, just far enough away from the sun to be warmed by it but not so close as to be burned by it. That there should be enough oxygen for us to breathe, enough water for us to drink. That every plant and every animal on this earth should exist together in harmony. And in my own life, I have seen too much beauty, too many miracles, to believe for one moment that we were put here by coincidence, for no greater purpose."
It was quite the speech; Sister Bernadette was fairly certain she had never talked for so long uninterrupted in the Doctor's presence. A faint blush stained her cheeks as she wondered whether perhaps she had rambled on for too long, but his expression was kind as he gazed at her through the haze of cigarette smoke that seemed to form a halo around his head.
"It's strange," he said. "I feel the opposite. I have seen too many terrible things to believe that a God who is good and just could possibly have arranged it all, and then done nothing to stop it. In Italy…" his voice faded out, and though it might been cowardly Sister Bernadette was grateful he did not finish that thought; the Doctor had been on the front lines during the war, and she knew he must have seen things that would make her blood run cold. "But I'm sure you've seen terrible things, too. Poverty and starvation and cruelty and grief. But you're still so sure."
Perhaps there was a question in there somewhere; Sister Bernadette couldn't quite tell, but she answered him anyway.
"Yes," she said.
The cigarette had all but burnt out between the Doctor's lips, and so he took one final drag and then stubbed it out in his ashtray.
"I should be getting home to Tim," he said, rising slowly from his chair. As he stood Sister Bernadette did the same, rushing to put her own chair back in its accustomed place.
"For what it's worth, Sister," the Doctor said as he shrugged into his jacket. "While I've seen many things that have led me to believe God is not real, you...you are the first thing that's ever made me wonder if maybe he is, after all."
She hardly knew how to answer him; what on earth does he mean? She wondered. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she looked at him. Perhaps he meant only that her faith had opened his eyes, that the work the Sisters did, their dedication, moved him. Perhaps, she thought, this was the reason for her doubts, the questions that had come to her in recent days and never been answered. Perhaps this was what God had intended all along, for her to meet this man, to befriend him, and slowly open his eyes to the world he could not see, and in leading him to God perhaps she might find her own steadfast faith in her purpose restored.
Yes, she thought as she looked at him, we were meant to find one another.
20 March 1958
"No more gas and air at home deliveries," Sister Evangelina declared. "I've had it out with Dr Turner, and he has conceded defeat."
It was all anyone could talk about these days, the introduction of gas and air into their midwifery practice and the sudden cataclysm of demands for it. Bella Collins started it all, spreading the news of the miraculous pain relief following her delivery, and after they heard about it every expectant mother in Poplar was screaming for it. Sister Bernadette, who had attended more deliveries than she could count and heard all manner of pleas, screams, curses, and exhausted weeping, could hardly blame the ladies for their interest in the promise of pain relief. Though she'd never experienced the pain of childbirth herself - nor ever would - she had come to understand that it could be really quite dreadful for mothers, and she saw no reason why the midwives ought not try to soothe them with any means available.
Sister Evangelina, of course, felt otherwise. Sister Bernadette was quite sure that she had never in her life met anyone with opinions quite as strong or as varied as Sister Evangelina's, and she had long since discovered that getting on with Sister Evangelina often involved quite a lot of biting one's tongue. She might have felt that the gas and air was a wonderful invention, and that Doctor Turner's plans for the maternity home were just what Poplar needed, but she wisely chose to avoid those topics of conversation within Sister Evangelina's hearing.
The nurses, of course, showed no such restraint, and Sister Evangelina's announcement was met with a chorus of dismay.
"Women have been begging for gas and air!"
"And you have absolutely no business giving in to them! Doctor's been prevented from seeing half his patients. He's just sat at his desk, and his face was grey."
Those words caused a flood of dismay in Sister Bernadette; she had not realized until now just how ragged the Doctor must have been. But of course he was; while ordinarily he would only attend the more complicated births of late he had been called out more often than not, hauling the gas and air contraption up flights of stairs and doing his best for his patients. He always did his best, their lovely Doctor, but he had a way of overextending himself; the man was constantly busy, constantly moving, and him with surgery hours to keep and home visits to make and a little boy to raise all on his own. In the past year he had proven himself willing to do anything that was asked of him and more besides, had earned the trust of his neighbors and become a fixture in Poplar society. He must have been exhausted and worn thin and indeed, for him to concede defeat when faced with Sister Evangelina's wrath. Sister Bernadette felt a bit guilty for the part she had played in it, for she had called him more than once to bring the gas and air, and though he had never complained she rather felt she ought to have noticed his weariness.
Was he thinking of the mother and babe they'd lost some months before? Sister Bernadette asked herself. Was he trying, even now, to make up for what he saw as a failure, to prevent future tragedies by giving all of himself to others? Doctor was a lovely man, and somehow Sister Bernadette wouldn't quite put it past him.
"If you ask me, Dr Turner's completely over-reached himself," Sister Evangelina said. They were still discussing the gas and air while Sister Bernadette's thoughts had wandered, but now she tried to pay attention.
"Has anyone else noticed a button's come off his clinical coat?" Cynthia ventured in her sweet voice. "He's got no one to sew it on for him." The words were soft and sad, and everyone at the table knew precisely what she meant; poor Doctor Turner was all alone, and over a year had passed since he'd lost his wife. A man without a wife, and Sister Bernadette was sure there wasn't anything more heartbreaking than that; he'd had a wife, once, a love, someone to ground him, someone to help him, someone to share his burdens, his bed, his heart, and now he was cut loose in the world, cold and lonesome. Sister Bernadette did so hate to see a soul in pain, and a love cut short...she'd had no love of her own, of course, no love but that of God and her Sisters, but as a girl she had read every book she could get her hands on, and the thought of love had kept her going, when the world seemed dark and grey. Surely, she thought, there was no gift more beautiful than love, but to know its warmth and then have it ripped away...
"It hardly inspires confidence!" Trixie cut in. "Ugh, and his poor little boy's looking quite unkempt."
It did not matter to Sister Bernadette in that moment that Trixie was right - Tim's ankles showed beneath his trouser cuffs and his hair was in desperate need of a trim - all that mattered to her was the Doctor's good name. He was their doctor, after all, and he deserved better than this, to become an object of pity, the subject of teatime gossip.
"Speak more respectfully of Doctor, please," she told Trixie, perhaps a bit more sharply than she meant to. A strange expression crossed Trixie's face, her eyes widening, her head cocking to the side as if she'd just caught wind of something interesting indeed, and Sister Bernadette's heart clenched in sudden fear at having been caught out. Perhaps she cared a bit too much for Doctor, and perhaps it was not only his reputation that concerned her, but that was not Trixie's concern, and she could think of nothing more dreadful than become an object of curiosity for Trixie's imagination.
"And I'll thank you to hand me the malt loaf," she added primly, putting an end to that conversation at once.
And yet when she went to bed that evening, all she could think of was the poor doctor's coat. If Cynthia had noticed its missing button surely it was only a matter of time before the mothers noticed it, too. Perhaps theirs would not be the only dinner table where Doctor's appearance and capabilities would be called into question.
Someone ought to do something, she told herself. Someone ought to help him.
But who? He was a kind man, and gentle, but he was proud, too, and would not readily accept help from any quarter. No, if someone were going to step in, they would have to do it carefully, in a way that did not draw attention to any perceived failing on his part.
And so it was that the following Tuesday, just after clinic, Sister Bernadette waited until Doctor deposited his coat in the kitchen at the parish hall. He was rushing out - though she was not entirely certain where to - and she knew this was her moment. She would never have a better chance than this one, and so she gathered the sewing kit she'd been carrying in her case for days just waiting for such an opportunity, and retrieved the coat from its hook. Carefully she folded it over her arms, trying not to think of how the fabric was still warm from his body, how it smelled every so faintly of aftershave and cigarettes, how broad and long it was, and how completely it would dwarf her if she tried to put it on. She sat down and located the missing button at once, and tried not to think of the breadth of the doctor's shoulders, or the strength of his arms, and focused all of herself instead on the task at hand.
Such a simple thing, the sewing of a button, a simple, domestic task of the sort she had undertaken countless times. But it felt different, now, somehow, felt strangely intimate to do such a thing for a man, a man she cared for. This was a gift, this little button, these few minutes of her time, given with no expectation of praise or reciprocation, given only because she knew that he was in need, and that she had within her the capacity to fill that need. If there were other things she wanted to give him, other requests she wished he'd make, she turned her mind away from them as a horse shying away from a loud noise; to question her dedication to her vows would lead her only to ruin. And besides, she was certain he would have no interest in her, a mousy little nun who had not seen so much of the world as him, nor experienced so much of life.
It's only that we're friends, that's what she told herself, and friends look after one another.
Patrick had left his pack of matches in his clinical coat, and so he had no sooner left the parish hall than he turned around and went back for it, eager to get on with his day but knowing that he would have need of those matches before too long. The parish hall was still and quiet, but a strange sight was waiting for him in the kitchen. Silently he ducked behind a wall, and then peered around the corner, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he realized what it was he was seeing.
It was Sister Bernadette, still wearing her white apron from clinic, with his coat spread across her lap. She'd caught her bottom lip between her teeth, and her hands were busy, a needle and thread flickering as she worked. It must have been that button, he realized, the button he'd been meaning to see to for weeks now - after all, he was quite competent with needle and thread, thanks to both his years of medical training and his time as a soldier. Though he was capable of doing it himself he never seemed to remember when he was in a position to take care of that pesky button, but now it seemed Sister Bernadette had taken it upon herself to fix it for him. Unasked and unprompted she had done this thing for him, and he smiled as he watched her, thinking how lovely she was. It was the Sisters' way, he knew, to give help where it was needed and ask for nothing in return, but it was not Sister Julienne sitting there with his coat spread across her knees. It was her, this strange, fierce woman who had occupied his thoughts so frequently of late, and his heart sang to see it, to find this evidence of her own affection for him so plainly displayed.
For a moment he considered interrupting her, but then decided against it. Sister Bernadette had timed her intervention well, had chosen a moment when he was not likely to stumble across her, and Patrick supposed it must have been a desire to avoid discovery that compelled her. The last thing he wanted was to make her feel awkward or uncomfortable, and so he watched her another moment more before turning away. He could buy another pack of matches at the newsagent's and leave her in peace.
But his thoughts were awhirl with her; the vision of her face swam before his eyes, and the soft lilting sound of her voice echoed in his mind. How lovely she was, and how gentle; Patrick was certain he had never known anyone quite like her. He wanted, very much, to thank her for this gift that she had given him, but as he turned it over in his mind he realized it would not do to call attention to it so plainly. This thing she had done for him in secret, and so the manner of his thanks must likewise be private.
For a few days the question of how best to offer his gratitude consumed him, but then he fell upon the perfect solution. And so the following Tuesday while Sister Bernadette was otherwise occupied he opened her case, and slipped a small, folded-paper frog inside. There was nothing else he could give her, but she had accepted two already, and he thought a third would be no bother. Later that day, when she was unpacking her case, she would find it, and she would know who had put it there and, he hoped, the reason why. The thought of it, her delicate hands taking hold of this thing he had made for her, turning it over and over, her cheeks flushing pink when she realized that he must have known she was the one who had restored his coat, delighted him more than words could say.
And though she would never see it, before he'd folded the frog Patrick had written the words thank you on the paper, a message tucked away out of sight once the folding was done. He had done it for himself, more than anything else, wishing he could say the words to her face and yet knowing he could not. Whether she kept the little frog or threw it away made no matter; the giving of the gift was what mattered.
29 March 1958
It was a matter of probability, Patrick supposed. A game of numbers, good outcomes weighed against bad, each as likely as the other. Certain variables could be controlled; the prenatal health of the mother, the cleanliness of the delivery room, the training and experience of the midwife - or doctor as the case may be. And yet there was some extra something, a piece that neither science nor homeopathic wisdom had yet refined or quantified. There was an element of sheer luck involved in every delivery, and there was no power on earth that could predict or override it.
No power in heaven, either, I'll wager, he thought, or else surely God would look down upon the humility and grace of the Sisters, and bless them always with easy, happy births.
The Kelly baby had been, by all accounts, perfectly healthy, perfectly normal, his parents perfectly happy, and yet within a day of his birth he had been taken from the world. It was up to Patrick - and the inquiry - to determine the cause, and yet Patrick was not entirely certain there was a cause. Failure to thrive, that's what they used to call it, a bland, catch-all phrase that translated roughly to mean we don't bloody know. Some babies entered the world pink-faced and squalling and left it shortly thereafter for reasons no man could fathom, and it stung, more than Patrick would like to admit, to think that he did not possess the skill or reason to ferret out the why of it, to stop such devastation before it claimed another happy, hopeful family.
The Nonnatuns had given him a corner of their home in which to pour over Nurse Miller's notes; such documents were the purview of the order, and were not to leave their grounds, and Patrick did not bicker with them. Timothy was spending the weekend with Marianne's mother, and Patrick had never been quite so grateful for Granny Parker as he was now. It would be easier to devote himself to the case at hand and his own brooding thoughts without having to fret about Tim. There was good light and a sturdy desk here, and the murmur of friendly voices from down the hall, and Patrick spread out his own notes and papers among the clinic's records of Mrs. Kelly's pregnancy, looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, for some symptom they had missed or some sign of divine retribution.
Before he could delve too far into his work, however, there came the soft sound of a gentle footfall behind him, and then a familiar voice spoke.
"These are all of Nurse Miller's notes," Sister Bernadette told him. Her usually cheerful face was drawn and full of sorrow, her shoulders bowed as if she were weighed down by some heavy burden. And she was, of course she was; they were all distressed, devastated by this news and worried for Nurse Miller, who despite her small stature and hesitant nature was one of the most qualified among them, and universally adored. She was one of their own, that merry band of ladies who loved one another so fiercely and fought so hard for their patients' welfare, and any grief that came to her came to them all.
"And, please, you're most welcome to join us for dinner," the Sister added.
For a moment Patrick was sorely tempted. His heart was heavy, and the Nonnatuns always brought a certain sense of life, of hope to him. She always brought him hope, when he felt that all was lost; and wasn't that strange, he thought, that in this moment what he wanted, more than most anything else, was simply to sit and speak with Sister Bernadette. She had a calm, rational way of approaching most any problem, and her heart was tender and true. That soft voice, those brilliant blue eyes, her hesitant smile was the bright spot in the bleakest of days. How that had come to be Patrick wasn't entirely sure, and it troubled him a very great deal, for she was not his to covet, his to yearn for.
"Thank you," he told her sincerely. "But I want to try and get a bit ahead of the inquiry." That was true enough, and the rest of it - that he did not want to sit across from her at a table full of witnesses, in a place where he could not speak to her plainly, and alone - was better off left unsaid.
"Is there anything else I can get you, Doctor Turner?"
She was lingering; it was nearly tea time, and everyone else had gathered together for their meal, and yet here she stood. Already she had given him everything he could ask of her, and she knew it as well as did he. And yet the offer had been made, in good faith; what she expected of him he could not say, but he knew what he wanted to ask her for then. He wanted to ask her to sit beside him, wanted to take her hand, wanted her to tell him that everything would be all right. Somehow when the words came from her, he believed them.
And yet he did not ask for any of those things, for he knew that he couldn't. What did she have, then, that could be freely given, that could aid him in this moment of distress?
"Some of your faith, perhaps?" he said wryly, thinking of the night in the surgery when they had spoken of themselves, and their hearts. "It's at times like this I wish I had one." At times like this, when his very soul was weary, he thought of her, her resiliency, her dedication, her steadfast determination, thought of the way she seemed almost to float through life, buoyed aloft by the strength of her convictions and the love of her God, and wished, most fervently, that he should know such peace himself.
"It's at times like this I wish it made a difference," she said quietly.
For a moment Patrick could do no more than stare at her in amazement. It was an intimate sort of confession, the sort of thing he never would have expected to hear from a nun, let alone from her. That she could doubt, that she could feel this confusion as completely as could he, made her somehow more dear to him than ever before. When he'd first come to this place the nuns had seemed almost alien to him, divorced as they were from the baser desires and troubles of the world. They seemed to want for nothing, seemed not to have the ability to yearn, and yet the more he learned about Sister Bernadette the more he came to see her not just as a nun, but as a woman, whole and yet incomplete. She had chosen the religious life, and though she was meant to put aside her old self it seemed some piece of her individual spirit remained, and he hungered to know her. To know where she'd come from, what name she'd been given at birth, what she hungered for most.
"Sorry," she said when he'd been quiet too long, looking a bit aghast at her own boldness, "I should leave you to your work."
"No," Patrick said quickly, his hand reaching out to her as if by reflex, "please, stay. Take tea with me." It was a plea from a desperate heart, his need to be near her winning out against his own better judgment. She had shown him a different side to her, had revealed herself to him as intimately as if she had removed her wimple right there at his desk, and he had done the same without thinking, joining her there on the limb she'd crawled out on with his heart exposed.
"I'm expected in the dining room," she said, and turned away from him then, but Patrick could not let her go so easily. It would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, to hold his tongue and allow her the dignity of a silent retreat, but his heart was full to bursting with questions, and unsatisfied curiosity always drove him mad.
"Sister, wait," he said desperately, and she turned on her heel, her eyes wide and frightened behind her glasses.
"May I ask your name? Your real name?"
No doubt it seemed a non sequitur to her, a question apropos of nothing, but it was a question he had been aching to ask for months, and it spilled out of him now, when his nerves were frayed and his guard was down and his heart was crying out for her. Who are you, that's what he wanted to ask, who have you been and who do you want to become? He did not like calling her Sister, the way he did with Sister Julienne, Sister Evangelina, Sister Monica Joan; she was more dear to him than any other, and his feelings for her were far from fraternal. And he could not call her simply Bernadette; that was not her name, not her proper name, and it did not seem to suit her besides. Though she was a gentle sort of woman there was a fire in her spirit, a ferocity in her small frame that enchanted him quite completely. She did not have Sister Julienne's otherworldly serenity nor did she have Sister Evangelina's bullish nature, but she was implacable and unshakable, a natural leader just the same. She could laugh, could make him laugh, could give orders and organize people with all the authority of a drill sergeant, and yet somehow she had been relegated to a life of service, a life where she could not speak her mind as freely as he wished. It was incongruous to his mind, as if she had assumed another woman's face when she'd taken a different name.
A strange expression flickered in her eyes as he asked his question, and he wondered then what she must think of him and his utter lack of propriety.
"You may ask," she said gently, "but I may not answer. It does not matter who we were, Doctor Turner, only what we are."
If he hadn't known better, Patrick would have sworn in that moment that she spoke those words with regret, as if she wanted to tell him otherwise, and yet knew she couldn't. As if, no matter how she tried, she did not want to forget who had she been, did not want that girl to linger forgotten in the shadows while Sister Bernadette took her place, though she knew that she must. He opened his mouth to speak, to stop her short once again, but she was too quick for him; she turned then and departed, and left only sorrow in her wake.
It does not matter who we were, she'd told him. That was true enough for the Sisters, he supposed; their names, their possessions, their families, their friends, their ambitions, all of these things they turned over to the Order when they took their vows, and kept nothing for themselves. She had told him that she was not allowed personal possessions, had agonized over accepting even a folded paper frog from him, knowing that it was not permitted. Whoever she had been, whoever she might be in her heart, she was Sister Bernadette, now, and none of the rest of it mattered.
Patrick couldn't quite agree with that sentiment, somehow. He had grown up poor and scrappy in Poplar, and while he was no longer the boy Pat that he had been the lessons he had learned stayed with him, and informed his choices. After all, he never would have come to this place after Marianne's death had it not been for the boy inside him, yearning for home. And he had been a soldier, for a time, and though there were few who knew and fewer still who cared about his service the memories remained within him, still sent him shooting bolt upright in the middle of the night, sweating and weeping. He was a soldier no more, but still a part of him remained in the blood-soaked earth of Italy. He had been Marianne's husband, and while she was lost to him now, buried for over a year, still he wore a ring on his finger, heard her voice in his mind when he was beset with some problem he could not face.
Whoever she had been, wherever she had come from, he was certain that some piece of Sister Bernadette remained, still, the girl who had come before. That girl had chosen to come to the convent - and she could just as easily choose to leave it.
Though he should have been focusing on Nurse Miller's notes he sat instead for a time with that thought ricocheting around in his mind. Perhaps that was the reason, above all the others, why the Sisters buried their old selves when they took their vows. The old self would whisper of delights now abstained from, hopes forgotten, dreams laid aside, and to name that self, to give it a chance to breathe, was to take the risk that she might want to turn away from the Order completely.
Was there a part of Sister Bernadette that yearned for freedom? And why did that idea consume him so utterly? Somewhere deep in his heart Patrick felt he knew the answer to both those questions, and he feared it. With a sigh he turned back to Nurse Miller's notes, and tried to quiet the voice of his heart, clamoring for the one thing in all the world that he could never claim for his own.
5 April 1958
"How is she?" Doctor asked nervously, hovering just over Sister Bernadette's shoulder. Ordinarily she did not entirely approve of men who stood so close to her, nor did she approve of unnecessary worry or meddling, but when it came to Doctor, it seemed she was more than willing to make a few exceptions, and his proximity did not bother her in the least.
"She's a wee little thing, but she's breathing steadily and her color is good," she answered him breathlessly. As she spoke she made the mistake of looking up at him, her eyes catching for a moment on his own, and it was not only the adrenaline from a complicated birth that made her heart race. He had such a good face, such a kind face, his eyes dark and warm, little wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and lips from a thousand enthusiastic smiles. That face had become so dear to her, and as she looked at him now she almost forgot about the tiny babe in her arms, born nearly eight weeks early, about Trixie tending to the exhausted mother in the bed on the other side of the room. As she looked at him, it was as if everything else in the world seemed to fade away; she could feel the warmth of him just behind her, and she knew if she leaned back just a little she would come into contact with the hard plane of his chest. His thick, dark hair flopped across his forehead in a way that made her fingers itch to reach out and brush it back, and his lips were just there -
"May I?" he asked, startling her out of her most improper thoughts, stepping around her to reach for the baby.
"Of course," she said at once, and carefully, so carefully she handed her burden to him. The child was terribly small, and fragile because of that smallness, but Sister Bernadette knew she could trust Doctor to take great care of the little one; he had more than proven himself worthy of such trust. His hands were broad and strong but so, so gentle as he took hold of the child, nestled her into the crook of his arm and looked down on her in wonder.
"My, you are a tiny thing, aren't you?" he said to the baby.
Of all the doctors she'd ever worked with, Doctor Turner was the only one who seemed to share the midwives' love for the least of their charges. Other doctors were more detached and did not care for the emotional theatrics of the birthing room, or wanted to spend their time pursuing what they felt were more urgent or more pressing cases, but not so with Doctor Turner. He was passionate about the mothers and babies under his care, dedicated to their well-being, and he was always delighted each and every time he held a new life in his hands. It was no different now; he was looking down on that little baby with awe written in every line of his face, one of his hands reaching to turn back the corner of the towel she was bundled in so he could press his fingertips against the baby's chest and check her breathing. His movements were practiced and assured, and yet there was a beauty to it, Sister Bernadette thought, to how he seemed to understand the importance of this moment, the grave responsibility with which they had been charged, the way he approached his duties with his own sort of reverence.
Had he been this sweet when his own child was born? She wondered as she looked at him now. How must it have moved him, to accept a baby that was his own flesh and blood, not to be turned over to strangers and added to a list of successful cases, but his, born of the woman he loved, conceived of that love? What must it feel like, she wondered, to carry such love within oneself, and then to watch it grow over the years, to live always with that love at the very center of one's being? In the course of her work she had held so many babies, and she had loved them all, but none of them had been hers, and while before now she had thought herself content without such attachments she felt a sudden well of sadness at the thought. All too soon this moment would end; the obstetrics flying squad had been sent for, and when they arrived they would take over, would possibly even take the child to hospital for observation. Sister Bernadette and Trixie would return to Nonnatus, and Doctor to his own home, and they would only see this wee girl for checkups and clinical visits. For the first time in a very long while, her heart ached with longing for a child she could hold, and keep.
"She is very small," Doctor said then, wrapping the child once more in the towel and yet still holding her close.
"God willing she'll grow in time," she answered him. If she's very lucky. As a nun it did not matter so very much that she was really quite short and daintily built, but Sister Bernadette's small stature had caused her much grief in her younger years. The other children used to tease her, and the adults around her seemed to treat her as if she were made of glass. Her thoughts drifted to Chummy, then, who had no doubt experienced her fair share of struggles as a result of the opposite problem; far better, she thought, to be average, and avoid the attention that came when one fell too far on one end of the spectrum or the other.
"There is a delicacy about small things that makes them precious," Doctor told her in a quiet voice then, and his eyes were dark and earnest as he spoke, and a flush rose to her cheeks as she wondered whether he was talking only of the babe. "To be trusted with such a gift, to be allowed to hold it in your hands, to treasure it and not break it, is an honor."
In that moment she wanted, very much, to believe he was talking about her. Over the last few months he had stepped closer and closer to the very edge of propriety between them; she had three folded-paper frogs lined up on top of her bureau, and she looked at them each night as she readied herself for bed, and thought of him. He had asked her, only a week before, to tell him her true name, and she had not stopped thinking about it since.
Somewhere within her chest there lived still a girl called Shelagh, and in moments like this that girl seemed almost to claw her way up the back of Sister Bernadette's throat, begging for daylight, for freedom, for the chance to let her voice be heard. For ten years Shelagh had been buried, her ambitions and her desires cast aside in favor of following only the will of God. It was a sacrifice she had made willingly, once, believing that she had been called to serve, that she could do the most good for the most people, that she could be happy if only she gave herself over to her faith.
That faith had led her to the Mother House, and there she had been greeted with kindness and warmth, submerged in an atmosphere of tranquil serenity. Mother Superior ran the Order from that place, and she did so with dignity and grace, and every dictate she issued was followed with joy, without question, for the glory of God. It has seemed almost a relief, at that time, to set aside worries over her appearance, her career, her future, the possibility of a family, and serve instead, to lose herself in routine and the needs of those under her care and to no longer have to question. From the Mother House she had been sent to Poplar, and she had been, truly, happy in that place. Sister Julienne was as dear to her as her own mother, Monica Joan and Evangelina her sisters now in more ways than could be reckoned, the nurses a refreshing change of pace lest the religious life grow too monotonous. She had been happy, and content.
But oh, something had changed. Somehow, someway, in the last few months peace and servitude had begun to feel more like chains than relief. She could not go where she wished, could not do as she pleased, must be awake for lauds and present for compline, must don the habit and swallow her objections. There was no room for Shelagh in the religious life; Shelagh could be stubborn, could sometimes be sharp of tongue, could be determined and independent. Shelagh could look on Doctor Turner and see a handsome man, a kind man, a dear man, and long for more than a polite, professional acquaintance with him. Shelagh could yearn for his broad hands to settle on her hips as they had done the day she first met him, could hope to hold a babe of her own in her arms one day. Shelagh could do so many things that Sister Bernadette could not, and she was growing restless.
That night when he'd asked for her name she had wanted, so badly, to give it to him. She had wanted to hear her name spoken in his voice, had wanted to ask his own in turn - for she still did not know his proper name, though the words Dr. P. Turner were engraved on a plaque at the door of the surgery. She had wanted, in that moment, to show him all of herself, her doubts about her vocation, her frustrations with her own limitations, her dreams for the future, and yet she had found some shred of resolve, and held herself back. If he had asked a second time she was certain she would have given him everything he sought from her, but he had not, and she could not feel entirely grateful for his circumspection. One day, perhaps, he might ask again, and then…
And then she might be entirely ruined.
"Forgive me," he started to say when she'd been quiet too long, and her heart gave a great leap within her at those words. Surely, she thought, he would not have asked her forgiveness if his remarks had concerned only the child he held. Though she knew it was folly she looked into his eyes then, and saw it; there, she thought, there is hope, and desolation. Perhaps it was more than a name he wanted from her; perhaps it was her he spoke of holding, treasuring, her very self that he believed would be a gift. Perhaps, mad as it might seem, he felt for her what she felt for him, this quiet, desperate call of one heart begging for another.
Whatever he felt, whatever she felt, it made no difference; her vows had been spoken, her path in life chosen, and she could not step away from it, not even for his sake. It would be folly, she knew, to throw away her commitment to God on the chance that this man might love her, that that love might bring her more joy, more fulfillment, than she had found so far. It would be to step out of the sunlight of God's mercy, and onto a road that led into darkness, with no way to tell where that road might end.
And yet, if he only asked it of her, she was certain that she would do so gladly.
"There's nothing to forgive," she murmured softly. His eyes widened slightly, as if he had heard the words she did not say, as if he understood, now, that she understood him, and did not seek to rebuke him for straying too close to a line they ought not cross.
"Sister," he said, his voice almost pleading, and she was certain that were he not holding a baby in his arms he would have reached for her then. Sister, he called her, and yet she would have given anything to hear him say Shelagh instead, for it was Shelagh who loved him, most completely.
But their moment of peace was not meant to last; he had no sooner spoken than the door burst open and the flying squad descended upon them, and any turmoil she might have felt was of necessity pushed aside in favor of caring for her patient.
6 April 1958
It was the warmth she felt most of all, the heavy, comforting warmth of peaceful slumber as if she were lying beneath a heavy blanket on a winter's morning, at ease and content and far from troubles. It was the warmth she loved most of all, the way affection and serenity wound in and through her, lit a fire deep inside her that kept the chills of the cruel world at bay. Her body was warm but her heart was, too, for she was safe, and loved, and warm.
The source of that warmth did not immediately reveal itself, but in these few precious moments before waking Shelagh did not concern herself with questions and explanations. She only dozed, sated, delighted, replete. Her body was soft and relaxed, unbound by rules and conventions and shame. The sun had not yet risen beyond the curtains, but soon it would, and the world would rise with it, everyone and everything coming awake and alive on another spring morning, but Shelagh was in no hurry to greet the day. No, she told herself as she snuggled deeper into the warmth of her bed, she was in no hurry to leave this place.
Try though she might, however, her mind was awake and sleep was drifting further and further from her grasp. Her eyes fluttered open, but what they saw she could not say; in the filmy world of dreams shadows did not resolve themselves into shapes, but she was not afraid. How could she be? Fear could not take hold here, not in this place where love cast its glow, where only hope and joy reigned.
As her thoughts drifted she realized quite suddenly that there was a heavy arm draped across her waist; it should have alarmed her, but it didn't, for she knew already to whom that arm belonged, and she knew in her heart she was right where she was meant to be. Idly she dragged the tips of her fingers across the smooth skin and fine dusting of hair that made up that arm, and was rewarded when its bearer tightened his grip upon her, and pulled her tight against him. His skin was bare, and so was hers, and she could not recall how they had come to be that way, nor could she summon the wherewithal to care. He was warm, and holding her, and she was safe, here with him.
What a delight it was, she thought, simply to be held, to be treasured. I have found the one whom my soul loves; old familiar words flitted through her mind, and she clung to them, hardly recalling a time when she had been without him. How dark those days seemed now, how dreadful, those days when no hand touched her, when no other living soul knew her as she wished to be known, when no one looked upon and her whispered her name with longing. How lonesome, those days gone by, and yet here and now they were only a memory. Here and now she was held, and loved, and seen; here and now she could be, simply, as she was meant to be. There was no hiding here, in this place, with him; she did not cover her head in shame or disguise the curve of her hips from his appreciative eye. He touched her, and saw her, and held her, and oh, what bliss it was.
Behind her he moved, shifting in his sleep, and she smiled in the darkness, thinking what a gift it was, that they should have found their way to one another at last, that they should have carved out this moment of peace for themselves, and only for themselves. Perhaps her love was selfish, for she wanted him, all of him, always, and in this moment she did not wish to share him with the rest of the world. Let him sleep, she thought, let him stay here, with me, the rest of it will keep.
She thought to turn in his arms, to face him, but she was quite comfortable as she was, and she worried that any movement might disturb her beloved, and cut his respite short. I will be content as I am, she thought. And she was; the broad plane of his chest was flush against her bare back, their bodies rising and falling as they breathed deeply in sync with one another. His legs were tangled with hers beneath the sheets, and his palm was flat against her belly. She was surrounded by him, enveloped by him, floating in a sea of him.
But such moments, however precious, were not meant to last. The sun began its ascent, the shadows of the night slowly receding, and her lover was waking. He sighed, drummed his fingers against her skin, his breath washing warm and sweet over the curve of her neck. Shelagh lay still, feeling the changes in his body around her, behind her, knowing without need of sight what he was doing, what he was thinking, delighting in that knowledge. But then, oh then soft lips brushed the rise of her shoulder, and she shivered at the memory of the passion those lips instilled in her, and he spoke at last in a voice rough from sleep.
"I love you, Shelagh," he whispered, and kissed her again, but as his lips touched her the room was bathed at last in the full light of dawn, and everything around her seemed to shimmer, to crystallize for a moment before it shattered like glass upon a marble floor.
Sister Bernadette sat bolt upright in her bed, trembling. Sweat beaded on her brow, and her breaths came in ragged pants. Her heart was racing, and as the dream slowly faded from view tears began to flow unchecked down her cheeks.
It was still dark, not yet time for lauds, but she could feel the impending dawn hanging in the air, another day rolling inexorably on. The room was her own, and familiar; there the crucifix above the bed, there the plain bureau with its sentinel of folded paper frogs, there the small table and the lamp, there her bible, her glasses folded neatly atop it. She wore her cap, still, and the simple, faded nightdress she always wore. Her bed was small, and empty save for her.
Perhaps it was that emptiness, that solitude, that sent the tears coursing more than anything else. Her dream had been most improper, but it had not been particularly salacious; she had not dreamt of sweaty bodies and thrusting hips and pleading moans, had not dreamt of Doctor's hands - and she was certain it was his hands she'd been dreaming of, for while she had not seen his face she had heard his voice, and that was enough - touching her anywhere less innocent than her belly, and yet she was filled with shame, for her dream had contained within it an altogether more dangerous longing. A yearning to be a Sister no more, but Shelagh once again, a yearning to have a man to call her own, a bed to share with another, a heart to love with everything she had. These things she yearned for, and yet these things she could not ever hope to have, not so long as she wore the silver ring on her left hand, not so long as she lived beneath this roof, not so long as she followed the path God had laid before her feet.
Shaking from head to toe she slipped from her bed and knelt beside it, folding her hands and closing her eyes. Always before she had found solace in prayer, had known that in giving her burdens over to God the way would be made clear, not matter her own distress or uncertainty. And yet, though she wished for absolution, for some insight into her plight, the words would not come. The dream had been too beautiful, and there was a small, petulant piece of her heart that felt somehow wronged to have it wrenched from her without any satisfaction. To dream of love, and wake without it, left the sharp taste of bitter disappointment in her mouth, and she could not find the words to wash it away.
Why, she thought, wondered, prayed, why would you do this to me? We are taught you will not tempt us beyond what we can handle, but I fear this temptation is too much for me. I want...I want...I want so badly, and yet you tell me I cannot have what I desire. Why then did you send him to me? Why do you torment me so?
Perhaps it was ungrateful of her, to speak to God in such a way, but her heart was full of grief, and questions without answers.
Patrick had slept but little, and now the clock beside his bed told him it was nearly 5:00 in the morning. The sun would rise soon, and Timothy with it. Or perhaps not; today was Sunday, and Tim might enjoy a bit of a lie in. Patrick certainly hoped he would; his father could use the rest.
All evening his dreams had been troubled with thoughts of her. The way she'd looked at him when he spilled his heart out to her, for that was what he had done, however carefully he had couched the words. The babe they'd delivered had been small and precious, true enough, but there was none so precious to him as she. Sister Bernadette, and how he was coming to hate that name, knowing it was not the name of her true self and yet having no other name by which to call her. Bernadette, small and lovely, clever and full of fire, Bernadette with her bright blue eyes, her delicate face, her capable hands. He treasured every moment spent in her presence, every word she ever spoke to him, and yet she could not ever be more to him than what she was, a shadow in a habit, a bowed head, a gentle word. Though he wanted to touch her, to know her, to hold her, she had chosen her path in life, and there was no room on that road for him to walk beside her.
And yet...yet she had looked at him, more than once now, her eyes shining with some emotion he could not name while his heart leapt in his chest and a question seemed to crackle in the air between them. If she were truly so dedicated to her path in life surely she would have rebuked him, however kindly, for his obvious attentions. Surely she would not have whispered there's nothing to forgive in that breathless voice. Surely, he thought, she would not find herself alone with him so often, or speak to him so plainly when she did.
But what of it? He asked himself, tossing listlessly beneath the sheets. What did it matter, whether she had taken note of his interest, whether she cared for him, when she was a nun, when she had sworn her vows, when she had made her choice? And what sort of man would he be, if he forced her hand, if he tried to dissuade her from the calling that had become the very center of her world? What sort of man would be so bold, so careless, so brazen as to steal a woman away from God himself? And could he truly be so selfish, could he truly let his own desires take precedence over the choices she had made?
There were no answers forthcoming, but as the sun rose sleep found him at last, and he dozed for a while, and dreamt of her.
10 April 1958
The Great Silence had fallen over Nonnatus House, and all was still, peaceful, serene. It was a time of comfort, rest, reflection, a time when no human voice could drown out the subtle whispering of the Almighty. It was a time Sister Bernadette had come to cherish over the years, a time to spend with her head bowed and her eyes closed, the troubles of the day forgotten, her heart lifted, not in song or confession or question, but simply in reverence, listening for the guidance she had come to rely on, the moving of the Lord through her very spirit. For many a long year she had looked forward to it each day, to laying aside her cares and returning, at last, to where she meant to be, to communion with the one whom she was sworn to follow, forsaking all others. And yet it was a time she had come to fear of late, for now she found that in the darkness, in the stillness, in the silence, the questions of her heart roared to a crescendo. Without the distraction of her Sisters, or the nurses, without her patients, without words to be sung and prayers to be spoken, the voice she heard echoing in the Great Silence was no longer the Lord's, but her own. It was Shelagh who spoke to her in the silence now, who begged and pleaded for release from doubt, from restraint, from obscurity, and Sister Bernadette did not know how to quiet that voice.
The small, humble chapel deep in the heart of Nonnatus House was the one place in all the world where Sister Bernadette felt closest to God, and so it was to the chapel she went on this night, as she had done for so many nights before. She lit a candle and knelt before the altar, clasped her hands together and bowed her head, and tried her best to listen. Not to question, not to plead, only to listen, to empty her mind of worries and focus instead on the silvery, shimmering presence of the Lord. How long she knelt there she could not say, but no great revelation came to her; the way ahead remained cloaked in shadow.
It was very late, and the ache in her knees had grown so distracting that she had very nearly decided to abandon this evening's attempt at communion when she felt the presence of another come to settle beside her. Perhaps there had been some soft sound of footsteps to herald her companion's arrival but Sister Bernadette had not taken note of it, so consumed had she been by her desperate attempt to find some sense of certainty. Curiosity had always been among her greatest vices, and she could not fight it now; she opened her eyes, and turned to see who had come to join her.
To her very great surprise she found Jenny Lee kneeling at her side, her eyes closed though there were tears streaming down her cheeks. The nurses did not often come to this place; with the exception of Cynthia, who occasionally lifted her voice along with the Sisters during compline, none of the girls kept any particular devotion. Sister Bernadette did not hold it against them; they might not have believed, but they were doing the Lord's work just the same, were serving humbly and selflessly, devoting themselves to the care and keeping of their neighbors. Just like Doctor Turner, she thought, and hated herself for it.
Whatever had brought young Jenny to this place it seemed that her heart was in turmoil, and Sister Bernadette could not bear to leave the girl alone in her grief. In the silence, in the stillness, she reached out and took her hand, and though Jenny's eyes did not open her shoulders began to shake, and the tears flowed fresh upon her cheeks. What sorrow is this, Sister Bernadette wondered, and can it be mended? Jenny was a dear girl, more outgoing than Cynthia, more restrained than Trixie, more composed than Chummy, graceful and compassionate, and Sister Bernadette longed to ease her suffering, to see her smile again. Perhaps there was no cure for what ailed her own aching heart, but perhaps she could find some respite in helping Jenny through the turmoil that gripped her.
No words were to be spoken during the Great Silence, and to go against that edict would require recompense, but Sister Bernadette rather felt that God would understand if she chose to shatter the silence in the name of helping another. After all, she was called to serve the Lord by serving others, and sometimes doing good did not mean doing right. That was a troubling thought, but she pushed it aside, choosing to focus on the matter at hand, and not the doubts of her own heart.
Carefully she rose to her feet, and pulled Jenny up with her. With her free hand Jenny began to scrub the tears from her cheeks, sighing as if preparing herself to depart and go to her bed to nurse her pain in solitude, but Sister Bernadette only smiled, and pressed a finger to her own lips, asking for quiet. A curious expression danced across Jenny's face, but Sister Bernadette did not answer her, merely led her from the chapel and to the kitchen. Once inside Jenny seemed to understand what was afoot; she settled into a chair at the table, and sat unspeaking while Sister Bernadette prepared two cups of Horlicks.
When her work was done she joined Jenny at the table, and then she did the unthinkable, and spoke.
"Now then," she said very softly, "what's this about?"
Jenny looked as scandalized as if Sister Bernadette had removed her whimple right there at the table, utterly shocked at the very idea of one of the Sisters breaking the Great Silence. Oh, Jenny, Sister Bernadette thought sadly, there are so many things you don't know about us. We yearn, as you do, and we doubt, and sometimes we stumble. We are no less human than you.
"It's Jimmy," Jenny ventured once she'd recovered from her surprise. "He's…oh, Sister, he's getting married, and his fiance is expecting a baby."
It was no wonder, then, that Jenny had been crying in the chapel in the darkness. Jimmy was a good lad, a kind lad, and he clearly adored Jenny, but she had never really allowed him into her private world, had never let him claim her for his own. Perhaps she had wanted to, perhaps she had thought that one day she might, but she had waited too long, and now Jimmy would belong to another, forever, and visit Jenny no more. Her moment had passed, and no love would come for her now, and Sister Bernadette bowed her head to hide her shame from the girl's sight, for in that moment she felt more closely connected to Jenny than to any of her sisters. To yearn for love, and yet not accept it when it was offered was to risk losing it forever, and was that not what Sister Bernadette herself feared, that love had presented itself to her in the form of a kindly man whose affections warmed her heart, that if she did not take hold of that love with both hands now she would be, forever, alone?
"Oh, Jenny," she sighed, sadly, "I am sorry."
And she was, truly.
"I don't know why I'm upset," Jenny said then, trying, as she so often did, to hide from her own emotions. "It's not as if I loved him."
Sister Bernadette wanted to laugh, but restrained herself for the sake of her companion's tender heart. It was so easy, to look in on another's life and see the truth that they themselves denied. It was easy to watch Jenny with Jimmy, and see that he was more dear to her than the word friend implied, to see that while she would not accept him she had likewise refused to let him go. Perhaps Jenny thought herself above so common an emotion as love, or perhaps she feared it, but Sister Bernadette could see what Jenny could not, and she knew, then, that Jenny had loved that boy, in her own way.
"But he was there for you, for so very long, and now he isn't," she said softly, "and perhaps that's why you're hurting. You feel as if you've lost him."
Jenny sucked in a deep breath, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes, and nodded. "I don't want to marry him," she said haltingly, "but he was my friend, and now he's…"
"Now he belongs to someone else."
There was no way forward for Jenny and Jimmy now, even Sister Bernadette could see that. He would marry, and his world would shrink down until it contained only his wife and child. His life would change, would become less about picnics and tearing about London in his horrid car, and more about nappies and his wife's cooking. He could hardly spend his evenings at the Hand and Shears with a pretty young nurse, and he would not ever come to take her to the country again. His path had diverged from hers, and they would never again intersect, not in the way they had done before.
And in that moment she could not help but wonder how she would feel, should such loss come to her in time. Should Doctor Turner, upon realizing that his affections were wasted on a nun, turn his attentions to some more suitable woman. Should his smiles and his little folded-paper frogs be bestowed on another, and given to her no more. The very idea of it sent a physical pain lancing through her heart; she did not think she could bear it, to feel him slip from her grasp, to see another on his arm. But if she remained where she was, if she remained committed to the path she'd chosen, surely it was only a matter of time, and perhaps it would be for the best, perhaps it would bring him happiness and bring joy back into his home, but Sister Bernadette feared that to lose him would be to shroud herself in darkness, and never seen the sun again.
"I did love someone, once," Jenny said, staring into her cup and refusing to meet Sister Bernadette's gaze. "I loved him so much, but he broke my heart, and I sometimes feel as if I'll never love anyone else again."
What a dear girl she was; it must have cost her greatly to confess such a thing, but there was something about the darkness, something about sitting together not as their professional selves but as two young women only a bare few years apart in age, facing all the complications, all the difficulties of life together that made it easier to put aside the restraint of their daily lives and speak plainly to one another.
"I know this may sound strange," Sister Bernadette ventured reluctantly, "but heartbreak is a part of life, Jenny. We've all felt it. Even me. Even Sister Julienne. To love is…to love is human."
To grieve, to want, to yearn, this is what it means to live, she thought, and none of us can hide from the truth of our hearts.
"Does it ever get any easier?" Jenny asked her then, somewhat desperately.
"It doesn't get easier," Sister Bernadette answered her truthfully, "but you learn to carry the load." You learn to wake each morning with disappointment in your heart, and set it aside so that you may get through the day. You become accustomed to the presence of sorrow, until it is almost as dear to you as a friend, and you do not know what would become of you without it. "But you are young, Jenny, and the whole world is open at your feet." You can come and go as you please, and make of your life whatever you wish. You are not yet resigned to shadows. You have not yet done as I have done, and closed the door on love completely. "But you cannot wall yourself away from the people who are dear to you. You must set this heartbreak aside, before you become so accustomed to its weight that you can no longer remember how to lay it down."
Such advice she longed to take herself. In her heart she longed, more than anything, to set aside her doubts and the proscriptions that dictated her life, and reach with both hands for the opportunity that had presented itself to her. In that moment she thought of the Doctor, thought of his warm eyes and the fall of his dark hair, thought of his gentle voice and his strong hands, and she wished, more than anything, that she had the courage to set aside her fears for the future and accept him wholly, without hesitation. She did not know what would become of her, should she leave the comfort and familiarity of her life, should she step outside the light of God's mercy, but the whispered promise of love was beckoning her on, if only she had the strength to follow where it led.
But fear stayed her hand; what if, she asked herself, she had only imagined it all? What if Doctor was only being kind, what if in a month or two or six his affections waned, and she was left utterly bereft? What would she have, then, if she had abandoned God for a man who had in turn abandoned her?
He would not do such a thing, her heart whispered, but she did not know, and without such certainty she was left adrift, unable to choose her own course.
"Thank you, Sister," Jenny breathed, reaching out to lay her hand atop Sister Bernadette's in an uncharacteristic display of affection. "I didn't realize how much I needed to talk about this with someone."
"I'm always here, if you're in need of a listening ear," Sister Bernadette told her. And oh, how I wish there was someone who could hear my own confession, and offer me comfort. "But perhaps it's time for bed. I wouldn't want Sister Evangelina to catch us."
No, that would no do at all; Sister Bernadette could not bear to sit through a lecture come morning, and she could not even begin to explain all the many reasons why she'd felt this conversation warranted such an egregious violation of the rules of the Order. Jenny understood, of course she did; she laughed once, softly, and they finished their Horlicks quickly and in silence before making their way up to bed. It seemed that their conversation had helped young Jenny in some way, but as Sister Bernadette slipped beneath her own bedsheets her thoughts were racing, and sleep was a long way off.
17 April 1958
All in all, it was shaping up to be quite the strangest birth Patrick had witnessed in quite some time. Trixie and Sister Bernadette had their work cut out for them, dealing with a pair of twins - who might or might not have been married to the same man, Patrick still didn't quite understand the situation, but if it were true oh how his heart went out to the poor chap - who were superstitious and scared, standoffish and utterly unwilling to listen to reason. It had come as a relief, to hand the baby girl off to Sister Bernadette and go in search of a cup of tea, but he had no sooner taken a sip than Trixie was calling for him, and he was back in the trenches once again.
There was a second baby, and that news seemed to strike fear into the heart of the poor mother; her own mother had died in childbirth with twins, and no matter how she begged her sister would not come to her. She must have felt, he thought, terribly frightened, and terribly alone. It was her sister she loved, her sister she needed, and yet she remained without her, surrounded by people she did not know, doing things she could not comprehend. She was sobbing, now, as Patrick approached her bedside, and though his heart went out to her in the moment he was less concerned with her emotional state and more concerned with getting the second baby out as quickly as possible.
"What's the lie?" he asked Sister Bernadette quietly, urgently. She had been bowed low over the swell of Mave Carter's belly, but she straightened up to answer him, and had the circumstances been different he might have taken note of the fact that he was standing closer to her now than he could recall having been in quite some time.
"Transverse," she answered him softly, staring up into his eyes with worry written on every line of her face. There was no need for further explanation, then; Patrick and Sister Bernadette were of one mind about what that meant, about what had to happen next, and Trixie was already moving into place. There was only one option at this late stage, the mother distressed and exhausted already; luckily for Mave Carter, the midwife standing beside her was the one person in all the world Patrick trusted most to do what had to be done now.
Things began to move very quickly, then; such was the nature of birth. There might be hours when nothing at all seemed to change, when time itself seemed to have frozen around the occupants of the birthing room, but when it got going there was suddenly no time left at all, a dozen things happening all at once, and the doctors and the midwives had no choice but to act, and consider the strangeness, the miraculousness of it all later, once the blood and the screams had passed.
The circumstances called for an external version, and if Patrick had not already seen Sister Bernadette complete the procedure herself he might well have stepped in at that moment, but now he did no such thing, for he knew that she was more than capable. He had watched her in action, perhaps six months before, had stood back and felt himself amazed by her cool head, her steady hands, the way she met every challenge with fortitude and tenacity, and he knew she would not disappoint him now.
And she didn't, of course she didn't; he stood by, breathless, watching, listening to the soft sound of Sister Bernadette panting with exertion, almost inaudible above the sound of Mave Carter's cries, but then at last she glanced at him, and nodded. Clever girl, he wanted to say to her then, as relief and pride flooded through him in equal measure. He wanted to congratulate her, to tell her how bloody marvelous she was, how lovely she looked with the color high on her cheeks and triumph in her brilliant eyes, but he bit his tongue for they were not alone, and there was work to be getting on with.
"It's in the correct position now," she announced breathlessly. "We'll need to rupture the membranes so the head can engage."
At once Patrick was following her orders; funny that, he thought, for while he was the doctor and therefore should have been the most senior person in the room he had deferred to her without question. There was no need to question her, after all, for she knew precisely what she was doing, and her calm counsel helped him to keep his own head clear above the terrified whimpers and protestations of the mother laid out before them.
No sooner was the first task done than the placenta began to come away; damn, he thought, can we not have just one thing go right today? It was perhaps uncharitable, considering the first baby girl had been delivered safely and was currently resting happily in a drawer close to hand, but just now he could not help but feel as if everything were falling apart. The placenta complicated matters somewhat; they'd have to get the baby out now, and that meant forceps. Hardly a reassuring thing for a mother who was convinced her own demise was imminent; there would be more pain in store for Mave Carter, but maybe, just maybe there would be joy as well. It was joy that Patrick prayed for, then.
Above him the mother began to scream, but Patrick remained focus on the task in front of him. Sister Bernadette and Trixie had Mave well in hand, and they were close, so close -
But he had no sooner begun to extract the baby than the sounds of Mave's screams shattered her sister's resolve and sent Meg - the nastier of the pair by far - racing into the room. Patrick did not hear the door open, and so was completely taken aback when too shockingly strong hands caught hold of him. He'd been kneeling awkwardly at the end of the bed and the surprise attack caught him off guard, and he went tumbling away, cursing. Meg was on him in a moment, trying to hold him down, perhaps even to strike him, but as he scrambled for purchase and tried to throw her off another voice joined the din.
"Mrs. Carter, no!" Sister Bernadette cried, her voice high and scared, and then she was there, just there, like an angel above him, trying to help. It was a wasted effort, of course, for Meg Carter was strong as an ox and Sister Bernadette was a dainty little thing, but the nun had leapt in to the fray without hesitation, and Patrick loved her for it. There were too many bodies, too many people, too much noise; just as Patrick made sense of the scene before him Meg straightened up and reared back, and then struck Sister Bernadette hard, across the face.
Rage such as he had not felt in quite some time filled him, then. There was no one, no one, so good, so gentle, so kind as Sister Bernadette, and the thought of that wretched cow - whose ignorance and sheer mule-stubbornness had denied her sister medical care throughout her pregnancy and now threatened her very life - striking Sister Bernadette turned his blood to fire in his veins. Were it not for the speed with which Sister Bernadette recovered herself and returned her attentions to Mave Patrick might well have struck Meg himself, but the nun's quick movements brought him back into the moment. She would not have thanked him, he knew, for such callous violence, and she needed him now, needed him to help her, and not make things worse.
"Mrs Carter!" he snapped. "We are doing all we can for your sister and her baby. If you interfere again, you will lose one or the other. I can't rule out that you might lose both."
And if they die, on your head be it, he added in his mind.
Sister Bernadette sent Trixie home once the obstetrics flying squad arrived, but Patrick and the nun had stayed behind to oversee the transfer of their patients. It had been a very near thing, the loss of the second child; the second girl had been so very small, and she had not breathed for such a long time, but she had come to life under Sister Bernadette's knowledgeable hands, and neither Patrick nor Bernadette seemed to want to leave the little one they'd finally delivered after so much pain. They had fought like hell, the pair of them - her more than me, he'd thought, smiling as he watched her hold that child - and they had wanted to enjoy the fruits of their labor, if only for a few minutes more.
But then there was nothing left to be done, no reason to linger yet, and so they made their way out of the flat together, into the late afternoon sunshine. While Sister Bernadette stowed her case on her bicycle Patrick lit a cigarette and watched her, thinking.
He was thinking of how lovely she was, how utterly indefatigable, how brilliantly, how beautifully she overcame every obstacle in her path. With her skills and experience she could have been running a hospital ward somewhere, but she had chosen, even as he had done, to serve the people of this community. Moreover she had chosen to serve God, and follow the demands of her Order; no matter how capable or ambitious she might have been she was destined, forever, to follow the will of others, and as he watched her now he found himself wondering if she truly felt at peace in her life, or if perhaps she longed for something more.
"We're like an officer and a sergeant the morning after the Somme," he said wryly as she came to stand beside him. "And that's not to say I see myself as the officer."
Patrick had learned so very much about this woman over the past year and more since they'd met, and while he still had so many questions for her one thing he knew for certain was that she would not readily accept a compliment. If he were too bold, if he truly told her how magnificent he thought her, he knew he would only make her uncomfortable, but he could not let the moment pass without acknowledging the way she had taken charge in the birthing room, the way her quick thinking and steady hands had saved the second child's life.
And he could not stop thinking about the way she had thrown herself at Meg Carter, the way she had placed herself into harm's way for his sake. It had not been entirely necessary - Meg Carter had only caught him off guard, after all, and he had been in the process of recovering himself - but she had moved at once when he was threatened, and he found that thought quite charming indeed. Though he knew it was folly, though he knew he could never tell her, he had grown so damnably fond of that little nun, and the thought that she might be fond of him as well left a small seed of hope blooming in his heart.
"I feel as though I should offer you one," he said then, gesturing with his cigarette. It was meant to be flippant, a light-hearted observation after all the troubles they'd been through; he never dreamed she would accept. As far as he was aware none of the girls smoked - save for Trixie - and the nuns were not allowed, for their Order dictated that they not sully their bodies with tobacco or alcohol.
But then a strange, almost mischievous look crossed Sister Bernadette's face, and caught him quite off guard.
"Just a puff," she said shyly, and when he looked in her eyes he could see that she meant it, that she was watching the progress of his hand with eager eyes.
"Of this?" he asked, shocked and delighted by turns. It was not at all what he'd expected, that she should want it, that she should ask for it. That she should ask, not for one of her own, but a quick puff of his. Patrick did not ever share his cigarettes with anyone; Marianne had thought it a filthy habit - which might explain, he knew, why he smoked so much more now than he had done before - and, well, the sharing of a single cigarette seemed an intimate thing. To share it one would have stand quite close to one's companion, and wrap one's lips where theirs had been. One would have to trust that one's companion would not take more than their share, and that this gift would be passed back in due course, with gratitude. It was akin to sharing food off a plate, perhaps, or off a single fork, and while the cigarette was passed back and forth conversation would fall like a cloud around such a pair, as they stood frozen together in a single moment, neither able to depart, neither wanting to.
"Quickly," she said, already reaching for it. "Just a wee one."
He handed it over, somewhat awed by her sudden brazenness, by the thought that she would willingly stand on the pavement in public and share his cigarette, do this thing she was bound not to do, and with him. He watched her, the steady, practiced way she took the proffered cigarette, the way she drew in a breath and savored it before expelling a little cloud of smoke, her eyes closing as her expression went a bit dreamy, as if she had not known such pleasure in a very great while. Of course the life of a nun was by nature not one of pleasure, but thoughts of Sister Bernadette and what might give her pleasure were not his to entertain, and certainly not here, not standing beside her on the pavement.
"Ooh, what are these?" she asked him, still holding his cigarette in her hand, and he stared at her, wondering how it was that every moment he spent in her company seemed to reveal some new piece of her to him. It was the sort of question one habitual smoker might ask another; the answer would have no meaning to one who did not know a thing or two about cigarettes, who did not have a preference. And if she had a preference, well, then perhaps he could deduce that she must have enjoyed them, once, and perhaps missed them. Perhaps it had been difficult for her to give them up when she took the veil; had that sacrifice been more or less great than the others? He dearly wanted to ask her.
"Henleys," he told her.
"Henleys!" she said, and he smiled. "I loved Henleys." What else did you love, he wondered then, before you forswore love of any kind? She was still holding the cigarette, as if simply touching it had transported her back into the past, and though Patrick was eager to take a puff himself he made no move to retrieve it, for he was enjoying the dreamy expression on her face far too much to interrupt her now.
"They were the kind my father used to smoke," she continued. "I used to sneak one out of his desk sometimes when I was about 14."
She lifted the cigarette to her lips once more, and he watched her, smiling. It delighted him no end, the thought of the little nun as she had been before, a girl with a different name, a girl with her hair spilling across her shoulders, reckless enough to steal cigarettes from her father. But that thought gave way to another, somewhat less charming one; when she had been a girl of fourteen Patrick had been a man grown, and married. She was so young, and he smoked the same brand of cigarettes as her father; it was folly, to think she might ever be as fond of him as he was of her, not only by virtue of her being a nun but by virtue of their different stations in life. A pretty girl like her, brilliant and capable, might be called away from the service of the Lord for the sake of a young man who promised her love, but Patrick could not imagine she would ever do such a thing for a man seventeen years her senior, a man who reminded her of her father.
"Thank you," she said, passing the cigarette back to him.
"You've earned it," he told her earnestly. For a moment she stood beside him, something watchful, expectant about her expression, as if there was more to say between them. And there was, oh, but there was. He wanted to ask her what sort of work her father had done, that he should require a desk, and keep his cigarettes there. He wanted to ask her how old she'd been when her mother had died. He wanted to ask her, again, for her name, wanted to hear more stories from her youth. He wanted, more than anything, to know what she felt for him, if she felt anything for him at all, wanted to know what she yearned for, deep in the corner of her heart where she was not a nun but a woman, still.
He wanted to tell her she was beautiful, and that she had utterly bowled him over. He wanted to tell her that he would be hers, unequivocally, if only she would have him.
But he told her none of these things, and without an excuse to stay she turned away from him, her hands buried in her pockets, and went to retrieve her bicycle. Patrick watched her go, and brought the cigarette up to his lips, wondering if he could taste her beneath the burn of the smoke.
6 May 1958
A sparkling trill of laughter rang through the parish hall, and despite herself Sister Bernadette looked up, frowning when she identified the source of the noise. It was Peggy Gibbons, a sharp-faced divorcee who accompanied her sister Mary to the mother and baby clinic most every week. Though Peggy could be brash and overly concerned with her personal appearance Sister Bernadette bore her no ill will; she'd been dealt a cruel hand, abandoned by her husband as she was, but she doted on her little sister, and had been a help throughout Mary's occasionally rocky pregnancy. No, it was not Peggy herself who caused Sister Bernadette to frown, who caused the sudden wash of dismay rising up in her belly; it was Peggy's companion, for she was standing very close to Doctor Turner, her hand resting on his arm, her eyes watching him like a hawk circling a rabbit.
Sister Bernadette might have been a nun, but she had been long enough in Poplar to recognize the signs of a woman on the hunt. Everything about Peggy's posture, her expression, her unnatural laughter - Doctor could be quite clever when he turned his mind to it but Sister Bernadette doubted he'd said anything witty enough to merit such a response - seemed to be designed to draw attention. A certain kind of attention, the kind of attention a widower might give an unmarried woman who was nearly of an age with him, who was almost as tall as him and yet not quite tall enough to be threatening, whose features were made up to their best effect, whose skirt clung tightly to the curve of her still-slender hips. The kind of attention Sister Bernadette was not permitted to seek for herself, and yet longed for, most dearly.
It would seem she was not the only one who had taken note of the disturbance on the far side of the hall; Trixie had been assisting her with folding a pile of nappies, and she, too, had lifted her gaze to investigate the cause of Peggy's sudden joviality.
"It's almost shameful," she sniffed, catching Sister Bernadette's eye and grimacing. "She's practically throwing herself at the poor man."
"Oh, Trixie, surely you don't think-" Sister Bernadette started to demur, but Trixie was like a dog with a bone when it came to gossip, and she had latched onto this new development with both hands.
"Sister, surely even you know enough to recognize when a woman is flirting with a man!" she said lightly.
They were standing side-by-side, with a clear view of the scene playing out across the way, and as Trixie spoke they both glanced up once more, saw that while Peggy's hand had retreated from the Doctor's arm her hips were still cocked in his direction. The distance was too great for Sister Bernadette to make out what they were saying, but she watched the Doctor gesture with his cigarette and take a step back, as if he meant to leave, before Peggy leaned in, intent on capturing his attention once more. They were all of them spared the discomfort of her continued advances, however, for Peggy's sister came marching out from behind the curtain, and while Peggy was distracted the Doctor departed at once. There was a moment, just the briefest of instants, when Sister Bernadette watched Peggy's heated gaze following the Doctor's progress, but it seemed Miss Gibbons decided against further pursuit, at least for today. And for that, Sister Bernadette was truly grateful.
"This is hardly the first time it's happened," Trixie said, pulling Sister Bernadette's attention back to the pile of nappies before her.
"What's that?" she asked absently.
"A woman setting her sights on Doctor Turner. It may have escaped your notice, Sister, but our Doctor is quite the most eligible bachelor in Poplar these days."
The very thought made a blush rise in Sister Bernadette's cheeks, made her shift uncomfortably on the spot. No, it had not quite escaped her notice; though she could honestly say she had not seen anyone else...flirting with the Doctor she did not need Trixie to tell her that the Doctor was handsome, and kind, currently unattached, and altogether an appealing prospect for a woman in search of a partner. It had occurred to her that one day perhaps some woman might take an interest in him, but she had not realized that it would happen so soon, that it might have happened already.
"Oh, Trixie, his wife's only just died," she said then, trying to find some way to silence the troubling voice that had begun to whisper bitter words of jealousy in the back of her mind.
"It's been a year already," Trixie protested, with all the conviction of a young person to whom a year could seem like an age. "And he must be thinking that Timothy could use a mother figure in his life, someone to help bring him up. I must say though, that man is completely hopeless."
"How do you mean?" The question escaped her nervous mind before she could stop it.
"Just that he never seems to notice when these women flirt with him. He smiles and carries on about his medical journals or Timothy's schoolwork until the poor woman realizes he's completely oblivious and moves on. Honestly, it's hard to imagine how he ever married in the first place, his poor wife must have had to try very hard to get his attention.."
"Perhaps he simply isn't interested," Sister Bernadette said then. The moment the words left her mouth she was kicking herself for being foolish enough to say such a thing. She should have told Trixie it was impolite to speak about Doctor this way, that it wasn't any of their concern whether he was interested in any of the women of Poplar, whether he might one day be inclined to go in search of a wife of his own. She should have spoken with dignity, and reminded Trixie that it was not their place to judge, but she had instead let her own hopes, her own doubts, speak for her.
There was the briefest of pauses, then, as Trixie considered her words and watched her thoughtfully. Sister Bernadette did not like the expression she saw on Trixie's face in that moment; could it be, she wondered, that she had not been as careful as she ought, that Trixie might have seen something she shouldn't have? Oh, Sister Bernadette and the Doctor had not done anything untoward, had not so much as approached the line of propriety between them, but there had been moments, several moments, over the last few months when she had felt as if she and the Doctor were the only two people in the world, only to have her illusion shattered by the sound of Trixie's voice. If anyone were to suspect the turmoil that gripped Sister Bernadette's heart, surely it would have been this bright, cheerful girl, and the very idea of it terrified her. There were too many questions swirling through her mind, and she had no answers to give, not to herself, and certainly not to Trixie.
"No," Trixie said then, softly, "perhaps he isn't."
And then, rather remarkably, she allowed the subject to drop.
He wasn't proud of it, but the moment he was able to free himself from Miss Gibbons' clutches Patrick had ducked into the nearest empty cubicle, and stood there smoking, hoping that the cigarette would occupy him just long enough to send the wretched woman on her way. Perhaps it was unkind, but Patrick had come to dread the sight of her; she had a way of speaking to him, looking at him, that made him feel as if he were a sheep on the auction block. There was no ring on her finger, and the woman who had placed the ring on Patrick's own hand had departed the world over a year before. Perhaps Miss Gibbons thought that if she were tenacious enough, familiar enough, if she put herself in his proximity often enough he might take note of her, and connect the dots, as it were, but the truth was there was nothing Patrick wanted less than to speak to her. On her own she was not particularly terrible, but he could not give her what she wanted, and it seemed she had not yet recognized his careful attempts at discouragement for what they were. If she intends to keep this up, he thought grimly, I may have to tell her outright that she's barking up the wrong tree.
Though he had no wish to be unkind to her he likewise had no wish to encourage her. It was not Peggy Gibbons who occupied his thoughts of late, was not Peggy's face he saw when he closed his eyes, was not Peggy he wanted, yearned for. No, what Patrick wanted was someone altogether different, a woman with sparkling eyes, with gentle hands, a woman who loved and encouraged his son, a woman whose wise counsel and indefatigable spirit had sustained and revived him in the darkest period of his life. It was Sister Bernadette he wanted, and though he could not have her he likewise could not entertain thoughts of another, not when she had consumed him so completely.
Outside the cubicle there came the steady sound of footsteps, and Patrick had no sooner stubbed out his cigarette than the curtain was flung aside, and she was revealed to him, that dear, delightful woman, as if his thoughts of her had conjured her on the spot.
"Oh!" she said, clearly surprised to see him. "That's where you got off to." Had she noticed his sudden exit? Had she been wondering where he'd gone? He rather hoped so; it was a charming thought, the idea that her mind could have drifted towards him, while he was alone and thinking of her. "Clinic is over now, Doctor."
"Wonderful. Do you need some help clearing things away?"
"Oh, I think we have it all in hand." She set about pulling the walls of the makeshift cubicle together, but then she paused for a moment, and shot him a strange look before speaking again. "And Miss Gibbons has only just left, if you wish to speak to her again."
Patrick laughed out loud then, he couldn't help it. No, he did not wish to speak to Miss Gibbons; he would be quite happy to never look on her face again, but evidently the Sister had seen Miss Gibbons' earlier display, and drawn her own conclusions. He knew what it must have looked like from across the hall, the way Miss Gibbons had touched him and laughed and posed herself before him, but perhaps his own discomfort had not communicated itself so clearly. As that thought occurred to him he began to wonder just what the little nun meant by her suggestion; did she think him keen to entertain such a woman? Did she think it would be proper, for him to go and find some willing lady to woo, to dance with, to perhaps love and bring into his home? Was this her way of telling him that he ought to do such things, that she would not stop him should he be inclined to start up a new romance? They had, after all, become friends after a fashion, and of late their interactions had become rather familiar. He was beginning to suspect, now, that the Sister looked forward to seeing him almost as much as he did her, that the quiet moments they had stolen together must have had some impact on her own tender heart. And if they had, if she had rightly seen how much he was beginning to care for her, was she now trying to direct his attentions to a more suitable candidate?
No, he thought as he looked at her, no. She did not appear entirely comfortable with the turn the conversation had taken, and there was a tightness about the set of her mouth that spoke of displeasure. Was it disappointment, perhaps, at the thought of him in the arms of another? Was it discontent, perhaps, at the thought of all she could not have?
"To tell you the truth, Sister, I came in here to hide from her," he said in a conspiratorial whisper. It was a gamble, to say such a thing to her, to lean towards her as if they were the only people in the room, but the folded screen shielded them from view, and her proximity made him bold. She ducked her gaze, refused to meet his eye as she cast about for some way to keep her hands occupied, and his heart sang in his chest, for here it seemed to him was some evidence, however meager, of her own feelings. Surely, he thought, if she were not interested in him and his entanglements she would not seem so out of sorts now.
"Then you aren't…" the words came out of her softly, hesitantly, but she did not finish her sentence. She did not need to, for he knew now what she was thinking, wondering, knew now that the question troubled her enough to give it voice. And if she were troubled at the thought of him taking interest in another woman…
"No," he answered, just as softly. "No, not all."
No, he was not keen, was not interested, did not give a damn for that woman, and he wanted, very much, for Sister Bernadette to know that. It would have been crass, would have been the height of impropriety for him to tell her the truth; to proclaim his own intentions would place her position in the community in jeopardy, would risk destroying the delicate bonds of affection and understanding they had drawn about themselves, and he would not dare do such a thing. He would not presume to put her on the spot, to force her to make an impossible decision, to ask her to spurn her faith, her vows, her very life for the sake of any fondness she might bear for him. It would be cruel to do such a thing, and so he said no more, only contented himself with the thought that she knew, now, that his eyes had not wandered to another.
"That's good," she said, and his heart gave a great leap in his chest, hope and wonder filling him through and through, but she turned away from him then and went to occupy herself elsewhere. She had given him what she could, and he would ask no more of her; though he did not know, yet, what this thing between them was, for now he would content himself in the knowledge that he was not alone in feeling it. Somewhere beneath the habit and whimple there beat the heart of a woman, and that woman was glad to know he had not set his sights on another. It was enough, for now; it had to be.
6 May 1958
"Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name -"
There is a delicacy about small things that makes them precious -
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done -"
It'll be our little secret -
"On earth as it is in heaven -"
While I have seen many things that have led me to believe God is not real, you...you are the first thing that's ever made me wonder if maybe he is, after all -
"Give us this day our daily bread -"
Stay, please -
"And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us -"
May I ask your name? Your real name?
"And lead us not into temptation -"
Good girl -
"But deliver us from evil -"
Forgive me -
"For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory -"
That's not to say I see myself as the officer -
"Forever and ever, amen."
How long Sister Bernadette had knelt before the altar in the convent chapel she could not say. Long enough for her hands to grow cold where she clasped them together in front of her, long enough for the candles she'd lit to flicker and grow low, long enough for the words of her prayers to jumble in her mouth, the words she longed to say drowned out by the quiet, steady voice of the Doctor. He came to her in the darkness, and took her over, whispered promises of hope, of a life beyond the walls of Nonnatus House, spoke with the words of the devil himself promises that Sister Bernadette dearly longed to see fulfilled.
It is the nature of sin, the nun who'd overseen her education in the Mother House had told her once, to come to us not black and full of grief, but bright and seeming full of joy. We fall into sin, again and again, for it does not present itself as something dark and disgraceful. It presents itself to us as the thing we desire most in all the world, and the devil whispers to us that we need only reach out and take hold of this thing, and happiness will be found. We must, all of us, strive to be above such temptation. We must remember that our happiness comes only from the Lord, and that to stray from the path he has laid before us is to wander into darkness, and never again be recovered.
Somewhere along the way she had lost sight of that, she realized now. In recent months she had been distracted by longing, by hopeful thoughts of what she might have, if only. Doctor had spoken to her softly, and her heart - so long left forgotten and untouched by human hands - had reached out for him in desperation and in hope. Sometimes when he spoke to her it seemed the most natural thing in the world, that she should think him handsome, kind, wonderful, that she should love him, and sometimes when he looked at her she could almost imagine that he loved her as well. But such love was forbidden to her, and to accept it from him, however freely given, would be a sin.
She had sworn to take no husband, to have no children, to build no family beyond the walls of the convent and the gentle smiles of her sisters. Always before that had been enough for her; always before she had been content, delighted, certain. Moments of doubt and questioning passed, whether through prayer and communion with her Sisters, or in the bright, beautiful moment when she held a newborn babe in her arms once again. The doubts had never been louder than her own conviction, and they had never lasted longer than a day or two.
Now, however, she had been lost in uncertainty for months. The bindings of her life were growing more difficult to bear; the rules of the Order dictated the methods she could use to care for her patients, dictated where she would go and when and with whom, kept her voice silent when she longed to speak, kept her humble and unremarkable when she longed to be seen. The rules of the Order sent her to her bed cold and lonely every night, and stripped her of her dreams for the future, for so long as she remained within the Order she would remain as she was now. There was no hope of advancement, a new life to be had; she lacked Sister Julienne's serenity, and her mouth sometimes ran away from her, and she knew she would never be entrusted with the management of a convent of her own. She would grow old, like Sister Evangelina or Sister Monica Joan, deferring always to others and never given the chance to have her head, and see what she could make of her own life.
Ten years before that had not seemed like a such sacrifice; Shelagh had been frightened by the wide world and devastated by loss, and the idea of no longer having to worry, not having to choose, had been an appealing one. Now, though, she had learned so much, she had grown so much, and she had so many ideas -
And the Doctor's hands are strong and warm, and I am so tired of feeling lonesome.
That was, after all, the crux of her distress. Perhaps if she were only lonesome and heartsick for a man she could unburden herself to Sister Julienne; her Sister would send her to Chichester, to remove her from the temptation, and she would pray and fast and be renewed in her certainty as regarded her vows. If she were certain that she wanted to continue to live as a nun the choice would have been easy; she could have forsaken any fondness she felt for the Doctor and devoted herself wholly, completely to her work. The problem was that it was both, both that she was not sure how much longer she could carry on in the religious life, and that she was utterly, wretchedly sinking beneath her own fondness for the Doctor.
But I do not know, she thought miserably then, her head bowed in the darkness, I do not know if he feels anything for me, if we could carry on together.
Just that day she had caught a glimpse of what might happen, should she keep Doctor at a distance. Another woman, a more suitable woman would come for him, and though she knew it might be for the best her heart shred itself to pieces at the very thought. And had Doctor not told her, in a voice low and soft and dripping with intent, that he was not interested in someone else? Had he not looked at her in a way that seemed to imply he had found the one he wanted, and was content to bide his time until she came to him? No, she could not say for certain what he meant; she knew how her heart longed to interpret his words but no declaration had been made, and he remained apart from her. She was not brave enough to ask him outright what he wanted of her, however, and so she was left only with this glimmer of hope, this glimpse of what might be.
And was it not the nature of sin, as the older nun had taught her once, to present itself wrapped in shiny paper, to hide the rot that festered underneath? Doctor seemed...beautiful, to her, the promise of his love more beautiful still, but what if she were wrong, what if he did not love her at all, what if all her hopes turned to ashes in her hands and she was left with nothing -
Please, she prayed, begged, wept there in the darkness. Please, help me to find my path. Send me some sign of what I must do, where I must go. Please, help me to find the contentment I once felt when I knelt in this place.
For the second time in a month her quiet prayers were interrupted by the arrival of another; Sister Bernadette scrubbed at her cheeks, and then turned to watch as Sister Monica Joan came to settle beside her. The poor old nun's knees creaked as she knelt, but she remained determined, implacable, and Sister Bernadette did not try to stop her, only offered her own arm to steady her Sister, and then gratefully returned her touch when Sister Monica Joan reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.
"There is honor in devoting one's self to prayer," Sister Monica Joan whispered hoarsely, watching her with eyes soft and full of pity, "but I do not think you have come to this place for reasons of joy. Your bright visage is marred by grief, and my own heart aches to see you in pain, who are so dear to all of us."
A tear slid down Sister Bernadette's cheek, and then another; for all that she was a bit batty, a bit old-fashioned, a bit prone to mischief, Sister Monica Joan was a beautiful, brilliant soul. She could turn a phrase like no one else Sister Bernadette had ever known, and her wide, watchful eyes, though clouded by age and confusion, saw more than anyone else gave her credit for. Yes, Sister Bernadette had been coming to the chapel on her own most every night for weeks now, and yes she cried in the darkness, more often than not, but no answer had come to her, and she was hesitant to speak to anyone else about it. Sister Julienne would send her away, if she knew what was afoot, not out of anger but as an act of kindness, designed to allow Sister Bernadette the time and space to make up her mind for herself. Sister Bernadette did not want time and space, however; Nonnatus was her home, and the Sisters were her family, and each word the Doctor spoke to her was a gift she treasured in her heart. To leave this place would be to abandon hope, and so for the moment she remained locked in grief and confusion.
"Oh, Sister," she sighed, trying to stem the flood of emotion that threatened to pour out of her. "I think…I think that God has laid a test before me, and I'm not certain that I'm strong enough to face it."
"A burden shared is a burden halved," Sister Monica Joan told her. "Does the Bible not say where two or three are gathered together in his name, there he will be also? Let us turn our minds together to the obstacle that has been set before you, and let us together overcome it."
I think this is a choice I must make on my own, Sister Bernadette thought, but she knew that Sister Monica Joan sought to help her out of love, and she could not bring herself to rebuke her dear sister.
"Did you ever wonder what might have happened if...if you had chosen a different path?" she asked instead. That was what she most wanted to know. They had all of them, Sister Evangelina, Sister Julienne, Sister Monica Joan, been dedicated to the Lord for so much longer than Sister Bernadette herself, and surely, she thought, they must each of them have been tested in their own way, in their own time. But they had all stayed the course, and perhaps they might have some wealth of knowledge that Sister Bernadette herself did not possess; perhaps, having walked this road before, they might be able to guide her.
"I need not wonder, dear Sister. I know full well what would have become of me. I would have married, to a well-bred lad but not one of my own choosing, and I would have frittered my days away with parties and bridge club and social engagements." Of course; somehow Bernadette had forgotten that Sister Monica Joan had been born into a life of wealth and privilege. Sixty, seventy years before, when she had been young and of marriageable age, the world had been so very different, and her options would have been so much more limited than Sister Bernadette's were now. "Hired hands would have reared my children, and my books would have been forgotten for no man of society covets a well-read wife. My life would have been quiet, and lonely, and sad. And instead it is full of joy, and full of love, for my Sisters are my family, our patients my children, this house my home. I know what would have become of me, and I do not regret my choice, not for a moment."
Then she peered dimly into Sister Bernadette's face, and she frowned.
"Are you questioning your own choice, dear Sister?"
Yes, Sister Bernadette wanted to say, yes. I am questioning whether there is love enough in this house for me, or if more might be found elsewhere. I am questioning whether I can truly be content caring for other people's children and never having one of my own. My heart is full of questions. And yet, though she longed to unburden herself, the words would not come. To speak them now, even to Sister Monica Joan in the silence of the chapel in the still of the night, would be to set the wheels in motion, to risk being sent far from her home, far from the Doctor, perhaps forever. To admit her doubts would force her to make a choice, and she was not ready yet, to choose. A tear escaped her, and then another, but no words left her lips.
"Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning," Sister Monica Joan recited the old familiar verse then, reaching out to brush the tears from Sister Bernadette's cheek with a trembling hand. "Set aside your cares for the night, and trust in him. He will show you the way, in time, and your heart will be lighter when the sun shines again."
"I hope you're right, Sister." Please, God, show me the way.
"Let us pray once, together, and then let us seek our beds."
Sister Bernadette could not argue with that, and so she bowed her head, and clung to Sister Monica Joan's hand as together they whispered a soft prayer, a prayer of hope, a prayer for guidance. And when it was done they rose together and departed from that place; no answer had been given, but it was enough, for now, for Sister Bernadette to know that she was not alone.
10 May 1958
"Come away from there, Sister," Patrick said softly. There was nothing more they could do for this poor girl, not now. The police had already carted her husband off in handcuffs - screaming bloody murder all the while - and there were more of them crawling all over the flat, taking note of the chaos and devastation they had found in that place. It was a terrible scene, and the poor little nun's face was drained white, her hands clasped together tightly as she knelt at the end of the bed where their ill-fated patient lay, a girl no more than twenty who would never again draw breath. When he spoke Sister Bernadette did not move, did not sigh, gave no indication whatsoever that she'd heard him, and it struck him, then how similar this situation was to another they'd experienced months before, though then it had been Patrick who was unreachable, and Sister Bernadette who had guided him gently back into the light. He remembered how grateful he had been for her tender touch then, and resolved himself to return the favor to her now.
"Come now," he said, keeping his voice low and soft, reaching out to gently clasp her elbow. The touch of his hand seemed to rouse her somewhat; she lifted her head, and gazed up at him with eyes full of sorrow, tears sparkling on her cheeks. "Come with me."
She nodded then, and rose woodenly to her feet; she did not seem to be entirely present, too lost in grief over the horror she'd just seen, and Patrick did not trust her legs to hold her unaided. Without thought he slung one arm behind her, pressed his hand to the small of her back and led her from that place, stopping by the door to pick up her black case. He carried it himself; she had no need of it now. On they went, out of the flat, down the stairs, out into the street; he maintained contact with her, drawing comfort from the connection between them even as he hoped it comforted her. Her bicycle was waiting for them just outside, but they weren't very far from the surgery, and Patrick did not want to send her off on her own, not now, not just yet. And so he did not stop there, did not help her stow her case on the back of the bike, did not bid her farewell, only guided her down the street, around the corner, and into the surgery. All the while they walked she did not speak, only stared blankly down at her feet and let him lead her as if she were not thinking at all, as if she did not care a bit what anyone might say should they see the doctor with his arm slung around her narrow waist.
In no time at all he had let them into the surgery, led her into his office. He meant to settle her in a chair, to fetch her a cup of tea and a biscuit and coax her into speaking, but she paused as he closed the door behind them, and drew in a ragged breath.
"I should go back to Nonnatus House," she told him then. She reached up and scrubbed the tears from her cheeks, and Patrick felt his heart sink in his chest. For her own sake he did not want her to go forth from that place, but for his own sake he did not want to leave her, for just the sight of her face was enough to bring him a measure of peace. They had walked into a scene of horror a mere hour before, a scene of violence, and he wanted, very much, to spend a few minutes in a place that was quiet and full of affection, wanted to let her gentle voice wash the care from his soul. And he rather thought she must have felt the same, for while she spoke of leaving she made no move to depart, only stood there by the door, very close to him, and yet no longer touching. He had let his hand fall away from her, knowing that it was not right, that he did not deserve to touch her, and especially not when they were alone, and both of them made vulnerable by grief.
"Sister Bernadette-" he started to say, started to ask her if she wanted to sit down, but she looked up at him then, and he drowned in her eyes, the depth of pain he saw there, the yearning for relief he felt mirrored in his own heart.
"That poor wee girl," Sister Bernadette said raggedly. She did not finish her thought, but she did not need to, for Patrick knew what she was trying to tell him. That the poor girl deserved better than a brute of a husband, better than fists, better than a death before her time at the hands of one who should have loved her. That it was not fair, that the girl should be gone from this earth while her husband remained. Justice would be meted out, but what sort of justice could there be in such a situation, when a life had been taken? Their patient would never know what sentence was laid before her husband, would never know a life without fear, and there did not seem to be any penance that could level such a disparity.
"I know," he said heavily, watching a fresh tear wind its way down Sister Bernadette's pale cheek. In that moment he wanted, very much, to reach out and brush it away. In that moment he wanted to take her hand, to cling to her, to tell her that love should never come with bruises, wanted to remind her of all the many families they'd helped to build in the course of their work, wanted to remind her that there was still hope left in the world, despite the darkness. And wasn't that strange, he thought, that he should be the one thinking such things now, when so often in the past he had given in entirely to despair? It was Sister Bernadette who had given him hope, he knew, and he desperately wanted to return it to her now, but she stood before him wrapped in habit and whimple, and he knew he could not touch her, no matter how much he might long to. She was so obviously in pain, and he felt himself torn between what he should do and what he wanted to do; he should not touch her, but he could not bear the thought of leaving her to suffer alone. He only wanted to make it better, but he knew this wound was not one that would quickly heal.
"I really should go," she told him, dropping her gaze, and how he wished she hadn't, how he wished he could still look down on her angel's face, how he wished he could still see her eyes, and she his, their hearts whispering softly to one another in voices too low for them to hear.
"You're trembling," he answered. For she was, shaking from head to foot, and his heart ached at the very thought of it. They were standing mere inches apart, close enough for him to reach out and touch her if only he were bold enough, and they were alone, and she was trembling, and he wanted -
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she told him breathlessly. How very like her, he thought, to try to bury her own feelings, to try to pretend as if nothing were amiss, as if whatever ailed her was not too heavy a burden for her to bear. In this moment when every inch of him felt raw and exposed, when his skin was crawling with the memories of what they'd seen and his heart was aching for her he could see straight through her defenses, and he wanted nothing more than to tear them down, to stand beside her in this place as equals, as two souls who understood one another, who knew one another, honest and revealed.
"Please don't hide from me," he all but begged her, his voice hoarse with an emotion he could not name. His own hand was shaking as he reached out, gently cradled her cheek in his palm, encouraged her to lift her eyes to his face once more. It was its own sort of cruelty, the warmth he felt when he touched her, the way the floor seemed to drop out from underneath him when she looked up at him; all he wanted was to hold her, to feel as if, even just for a moment, whatever affection he harbored for her might be returned in kind, as if there might be some hope for his reckless heart. The touch of his hand had placed her in an impossible position, he knew, but she did not pull away from him, only took one tremulous breath and burst into tears.
That shattered what was left of his restraint; he could not bear to see her so distressed, and his arms wrapped around her in a moment. She was so small; his arms encircled her completely, and her head rested well below his chin. Pressed hard against him she was warm, and trembling, crying in earnest, though he could not say whether it was only heartbreak for the patient they'd lost or whether it was something else, something more personal, that had moved her so. Before this moment he had thought that surely she would shy away from any sort of touch between them, but she did not retreat from his embrace; she collapsed against his chest and clung to him, and he to her, holding on as if for dear life. Her hands fisted in his jacket and he bowed his head towards her, would have kissed her hair if her whimple were not in the way. And it was strange, for while he could not help but feel as if something had clicked into place, as if by taking her in his arms he had somehow found a piece of his own heart that had been missing, he could already feel a sense of bitter disappointment rising within him, knowing that he would eventually have to let her go, that he might not ever be allowed the comfort of holding her ever again. This one moment might be the only grace he would ever receive from her, and so he took it, and treasured it, and tried his best to by his very presence communicate to her that she was safe, here with him.
How long she stood wrapped in the doctor's arms Sister Bernadette could not say. It was a gross violation of the vows that dictated her conduct, but she had not hesitated, not even for a moment. Doctor had wanted to touch her, to hold her, to help her, and she had been so heartsick and desolate that she had accepted this mercy from him in an instant.
He was strong, and warm, and safe; he smelled faintly of cigarettes and antiseptic, and when she buried her face against his chest she felt a sudden, fierce desire to stay there, forever. Such a short while before she had knelt at that poor girl's bedside, and thought to say a prayer, but the words had not come to her; she could only feel anger, anger for the man who had done this to his wife, anger for the many people who had turned a blind eye to her pain, anger that she and Doctor had come too late to save her. She had felt a blinding, swirling anger at the thought of this girl who had been promised love, and denied it; surely, she'd thought then, she deserved love. Don't we all?
And then Doctor had spoken to her in his warm voice and she had thought about love, and all its many implications, had thought about a love she herself had never known, and yet longed for, and everything inside her seemed to fall to pieces, to shatter irreparably like shards of glass, stabbing at her heart with every breath she took. She wanted love, wanted a home and strong arms to hold her, wanted to look at someone - at him - and say, this one, he is mine, and I am his. She wanted a family, and a purpose beyond following someone else's orders. She wanted so much, but then their patient must have yearned for a great many things as well, and never received any of them.
It was selfish, she knew, that she should be feeling sorry for herself when she had a warm bed and a safe home and her Sisters to return to, that while she had briefly become acquainted with violence she had never known its bite herself. How could she wish for more than she had already been given, she who had taken her vows and decided her own path so many years before? It was all so confusing, the questions swirling round her mind, and she had thought that leaving Doctor might give her the space to put it all to rights. But he hadn't let her go, and now she never wanted him to.
Don't hide from me, he'd said, and as he looked at her in that moment she had been briefly terrified that he could see straight through the heart of her, could see all the things she dearly wished to tell him and yet kept secret. And perhaps he could, for he had reached for her, wrapped her in his arms and crushed her against him. And she had let him, for she did not know how to turn away from the dearest longing of her own heart.
Eventually, however, her tears had run their course, as she knew they must. She straightened in his arms and he let her go at once, stepped back and shoved his hands in his pockets, every line of his dear face etched with concern for her.
"Sister," he started to say, perhaps intending to apologize, but she raised her hand, asked him for quiet, and he gave it to her.
"Thank you," she told him in a ragged voice. Thank you for protecting me, she wanted to say, thank you for sheltering me, thank you for comforting me, thank you for giving me reason to hope. But I cannot thank you for the love you've awakened in me, for the fear I feel because of it.
"Please, let me drive you home," he said earnestly, his hand rising out of his pocket as if he meant to reach for her, before he thought better of it and pushed it back down again. Maybe he felt, as she did, a certain sense of terror at the thought of bringing this moment to a close, drawing an end to the dance that had brought them this far together. Perhaps he was worried for her, perhaps he felt contrite for having taken advantage of her momentary weakness, perhaps he was only trying to be polite. Sister Bernadette rather thought it was not the latter, but she could not accept him, in any case.
"I need to fetch my bicycle," she told him gently. "And it's a fine afternoon, and I'd quite like to feel the sun on my face."
And I need time to think, for I'm no longer certain of anything, and I fear the moment when I will have to choose is not far off.
"As you wish," he said, bowing his head, and oh, the grief those words caused her, for what she wished, in that moment, was to go to him, to rise up on her tiptoes and press her lips to his cheek, to tell him how she cared for him, how completely he had changed her entire life. But she had already traveled farther beyond the realm of propriety than was wise for one day, and she could offer him no further assurances.
"Take care, Doctor," she said, and then she turned and fled, hoping that the sunlight would bring her some peace, hoping when she laid down to sleep she would not be haunted by the desperate expression she'd seen on her dear Doctor's face as she left him.
29 April 1959
It had been a long, unbearable sort of day; the ongoing ordeal with the little spina bifida baby had taken the wind out of everyone's sails, Patrick's not least of all. It was always difficult to see the hope and joy of pregnancy met, not with a healthy child, but with one who would face a long and difficult road. Most parents wanted what was best for their child, wanted to believe that their son or daughter might find joy and success and fulfillment in life, might find their situation raised above the one they'd been born into, that their child might one day find love and start a family of their own. Patrick had been much the same, when Tim was born, had been full of dreams, felt his heart fill to bursting with love every time he looked at his son, but the road that had been laid before the Roberts' feet would take them into places he had never had to tread himself, and he felt for them, truly.
But he was home, now, hanging his hat on its peg by the door, breathing a sigh of relief as the smell of Mrs. Penny's cooking washed over him. It was time, now, to lay aside the cares of the day, to lay aside the role of doctor and take up once more the mantle of father.
Just inside the flat Tim was waiting for him, sitting at their little table with paper and crayons spread out in front of him, his head bowed low over his work while his hand moved diligently across the page.
"What are you up to, then?" Patrick asked him as he crossed the room, smiling to see his son happily occupied with a simple, normal sort of task, the sort of thing every child ought to be afforded the chance to undertake for themselves. There had been a time when Tim scribbled relentlessly on everything in sight; nothing was safe from him and his artistic euphoria, not old copies of the Lancet or Patrick's books or even the walls of their little house. But Tim was growing up, and Patrick had thought him almost beyond the age when such pursuits would appeal to him. That had been a sad realization for Patrick, the fact that Tim was marching out of his childhood with alarming speed; he was already so tall, and growing like a weed, reading the Lancet and talking to Patrick about medical matters he would have thought well beyond the purview of a ten year old boy, and perhaps the time was coming when Tim would yearn to break away from his father, to become his own man, and Patrick would be left alone and melancholy.
That time had not come yet, however, for at the sound of his father's voice Tim looked up, and offered him a wide, beaming smile of the sort only a little boy could muster.
"I'm drawing a picture," he said.
"I can see that," Patrick answered him, laughing. He laid a fond hand on his son's shoulder as he leaned down to see what Tim had created. The laughter died in his throat, however, and another, altogether different sort of emotion replaced his mirth at once.
"It's for Sister Bernadette," Timothy explained.
Patrick had already assumed as much, given that the rough picture his son had so lovingly drawn clearly showed a little boy holding hands with a woman, a woman wearing a navy dress, with white scribbles around her head in an approximation of her wimple. There was a bright shining sun above them, but Patrick could not tear his eyes away from the sight of their two hands. It was hardly worthy of the Louvre but the intent of it came across plain as day; Timothy and Sister Bernadette standing together with their wide, cartoonish smiles and their little joined hands beneath the warmth of a happy little sun.
"I wanted to thank her for taking care of my hand," Timothy continued. "I don't have anything else to give her."
And she would not accept it, if you did, Patrick thought, though he kept those words to himself. He had once given Tim a rough sort of primer on the vows the nuns had taken, but he had not gone into the many nuances involved, and he did not much want to begin such a discussion just now. No, just now he simply wanted to look at that picture, wanted to try to make some sense of the noise within his head.
It had been not quite eighteen months since Marianne's passing. Though the wounds her death had left would never truly heal they had scabbed over, in a way; the grief lingered in Patrick's heart, just as he knew it must remain with his son, but they had learned to get along, had adjusted to their new reality without the woman who had been the center of both their worlds. For his part Patrick had grown accustomed to the weight of sorrow he carried within him, to the loneliness of his empty bed, to the struggle of getting through each day without the woman who had been his partner, his guiding light, his saving grace. He knew what it was he missed, what he was certain he would never feel again, knew that love had blessed him and left him cold and lonely. What he did not know, what he could not say for certain, was how exactly Tim was feeling these days.
Children are more resilient than you think, Sister Bernadette had told him once, and he had seen that resiliency in Tim, had watched his child bloom like a weed in the dirty cracks of the Poplar pavement. He had watched Tim make new friends, watched him laugh, watched him grow, and wondered if one day the dull ache of loss would not trouble him at all. Looking at this picture, however, he was beginning to think he had been wrong about that. Perhaps there was a hole in Tim's heart, just as there was one in Patrick's. Perhaps there was a part of him that longed to see that hole filled, to have a woman to guide him, to love him, to help him in all the ways his mother should have done, could have done, would have done if only she'd lived. Perhaps, even if he did not realize it, Tim had already found the woman who could love him best.
And she did love him, Patrick knew she did. Sister Bernadette was always delighted by Timothy's endless chatter, always willing to spare a few moments to indulge him and his many questions. She smiled every time she saw him, and when it came to Tim she was free with her hugs, her gentle affection, in a way she never could be with Patrick. There was a warmth in her eyes, each time she saw the boy, and sometimes her gaze would pass from Timothy to his father, and the warmth would remain, would bless Patrick, too, if only for a moment.
If she had been any other woman, if she dressed in a nurse's uniform in place of a habit, would Patrick have invited her out to dinner by now? Would she be a regular guest in their home, a steady presence in Tim's life? Would she have looked on them, those two lost boys, and opened her arms to both of them, stepped bravely into another woman's shoes for the sake of the love she bore them? It had not been very long since Marianne had died, and before this moment Patrick had not given any thought at all to romance, to going out and finding a nice lady to share his bed and ease the responsibilities of parenthood, to help him raise Tim up in the proper way. Was it fealty to his late wife that stayed his hand, or was it fondness for a woman who could never truly be his?
Patrick wasn't sure, anymore, and that thought troubled him, a very great deal.
"You will give it to her, won't you, dad? The next time I see her?"
Timothy was looking up at him with pleading eyes, and in that moment Patrick could not refuse him.
"Of course I will," he promised. "Now, go and get washed up for dinner."
13 May 1959
With trembling hands Sister Bernadette smoothed the paper out carefully, laying it flat on top of her bureau, guarded by its sentinel of folded paper frogs. When she looked at it she could almost hear Sister Julienne's gentle voice, and all the questions she had clearly wanted to ask, but kept to herself.
I didn't see you in service yesterday, or today, that's how she had begun, and Sister Bernadette had ducked her head, trying to hide her shame. It was an observation, not an interrogation, but it could not go unanswered, for to miss service was to grow lax in one duties, and a lax nun was a concern for everyone in the convent. For the first time in the decade since she'd taken her vows she had missed service twice in a row, for fear and guilt had kept her from that place. She did not trust herself, any more, not since Doctor Turner had wrapped her in his arms and held her close, not since she'd been given the smallest taste of affection, and discovered within herself a ravenous hunger for more. She did not trust that she could stand in that place and lift her voice in song alongside her sisters, and not fall to the floor weeping.
I've been keeping up with my offices whilst on duty, Sister, she'd answered. And that was true enough; she'd been praying, nearly every moment of every day, for guidance, for peace, for understanding, for release from this torment. She had been praying, most fervently, for some answer to the question that haunted her now, the question of whether she ought to carry on in accordance with her vows - and perhaps leave Poplar behind, the better to avoid temptation - or whether some other, rather more appealing path had been set aside for her. She knew what it was her heart wanted; her heart wanted that man, with his strong arms and his dark hair and his warm eyes, wanted him to hold her, kiss her, claim her, love her, wanted to be his, in every way she had sworn she would never be. But was that only the lustful yearning of a sinner, a temptation to be overcome, or was it the course her life was meant to take? Only the Lord could say for certain, and he had until now been ominously silent.
Doctor Turner came by, Sister Julienne had told her next. He dropped this off. He says, his sincerest apologies for being so absent-minded, he's been carrying it around for weeks now.
And she had placed the little picture in her hands, the picture Timothy had drawn. It was crude but charming, the bright colors making a cheery scene, but Sister Bernadette had nearly wept to look at it, to see the vision he had created. What a dear little boy he was, delightfully clever and terribly sweet; truth be told, Sister Bernadette quite adored him. He had drawn them holding hands, and while that should have made her glad in the moment her heart had felt heavy as lead, for there were secrets Sister Julienne and Timothy did not know, secrets that threatened to tear Sister Bernadette in half.
If she were to have this thing she longed for, if she were to set aside her vows and her habit and take the Doctor's hand, it would mean taking Timothy's, too. It would mean standing beside him, loving him, giving him her time and her energy and her affection in a way she could never do while she remained a nun. It would mean being his mother, and just the thought of it sent grief slicing through her like a knife. To have a child who - while not born of her body - was hers, her responsibility, her joy; what a gift that would be. To have a family, to step away from the sometimes lonely, often solitary life she led and into the warmth of a home...it would be a beautiful thing.
But she could not fulfill her religious obligations and take Timothy's hand at the same time. She would have to choose, between God's will and her own. She would have to choose which she loved more, the gangly Turner boys who had so captured her heart, or the Lord himself. And if she chose wrongly, her very soul could hang in the balance.
And so she stood, and stared down at that picture. Could such a dream ever come to be, she asked herself; could Doctor Turner love her, could Timothy love her, could she love them enough to redeem herself? Doctor had seen this picture, had carried it with him for weeks according to Sister Julienne; did he know the questions it would raise, the turmoil it would bring her? Had he given it to her anyway, or had he thought it no more than a lark?
There's so much I don't know, she thought despairingly. She did not know the ways of men and women together - oh she understood the mechanics of the act and its consequences quite well, but she did not know how two people came together, how they expressed their shared admiration, how they stepped from the delicate dance of flirtation into the symphony of love. The only man she'd ever shared a home with was her father; she did not know what it would be like, to leave the quiet world of women behind and step into a home with a husband and a small boy to look after. And she did not know, truly, whether such a thing had even occurred to Doctor Turner, whether he had entertained the notion at all. She knew so very little of him; she knew he had been born in Poplar, knew he had worked at the London, knew he had served in Italy. She knew he cared deeply for his patients and for his son, knew that he was kind and gentle. But he could be brusque, too, was occasionally somewhat lacking in bedside manner. She did not know what he liked to eat, whether he would expect his wife to stay home and put supper on the table for him each day, did not know what made him angry, what brought him joy. She did not know how he had met his wife, how he had courted her, wed her, lost her, did not know if he carried within him the capability or indeed the interest to love another. She did not know if what he felt for her was only the same concern and compassion he showed to everyone else, or if it was love, or if it could be.
What she did know, however, was that she had, in her own way, come to love him, and things could not continue as they were.
I shall have to speak to Sister Julienne, she realized. Her prayers had gone on unanswered, and her confusion had grown unbearable. The time had come to look for answers a little nearer to the ground.
A/N: I must beg your forgiveness; we're up to 1958 in this story, but it's 1959 in the other fic I'm working on, and I appear to have got my dates scrambled on the last chapter. Apologies for the confusion - if indeed there was any!
16 May 1958
It had taken every ounce of courage that Sister Bernadette possessed, but somehow she had done it, had made her way to Sister Julienne's office intent on unburdening herself for once and for all. If anyone could possibly find some reason in the tangled mess of her thoughts, if anyone could hear her confessions and guide her gently to understanding, it would be Sister Julienne; there was nothing that fazed her, nothing that ruffled her feathers, and she never, not once, passed judgment on another soul. Sister Julienne believed, as did they all, that it was God's place to judge and no one else's, but she was far more consistent in applying that belief to her own life than anyone else Sister Bernadette had ever known, and Sister Bernadette knew that within those walls she would find only grace, no matter how grave her situation had become to her own mind.
And yet she had almost run from this moment, this confrontation; she knew that she need not be afraid of Sister Julienne, but she was topful of fear, and she could not seem to shake it. Her mind told her not to be afraid, but her heart recoiled in terror, for if she spoke to Sister Julienne now she would never be able to take those words back, would have set her feet upon a course that would change her life forever.
Still, though, she could bear the isolation of her doubts and her grief no longer, and so she had come to this place. She took a deep breath, lifted her hand, and knocked once upon the door. For a moment a wild hope sprung up in her chest - perhaps Sister Julienne would not have time for her, perhaps this conversation could be laid aside for another time - but in the space of a heartbeat Sister Julienne had called out enter, and there was nothing for it, then. Having begun this journey she was forced to press onward, and so she swung the door open, and slipped inside.
Sister Julienne smiled at her softly as she crept forward, her hands trembling at her sides. That smile had not changed in the decade since they'd first met, when Sister Bernadette had come to this place wide-eyed and newly invested, full of questions, terrified that she would not find her way. That smile had comforted her, then, and in the years since Sister Julienne had become a confidant to her, her presence so dear and so calming that at times Sister Bernadette felt she loved this woman as much as she had her own mother. Always it was to Sister Julienne she had come to with her questions and her fears, and always Sister Julienne had with a smile and a gentle word soothed her battered spirit. In her heart, Sister Bernadette prayed that now would be no different, but she feared that the matter she intended to bring before Sister Julienne was far more grave than any other they had addressed before, and perhaps might change their relationship forever. But there was nothing for it, now; she had come, and she would speak her piece.
"I wondered, Sister, if I might speak with you about something which is becoming a concern to me." Sister Bernadette had resolved to start at the beginning, to explain how Doctor Turner had become so very dear to her, how his arrival in her life had coincided with a sudden, shocking loss of faith in her calling, to explain how her heart yearned less for prayer and the rigors of the religious life and more for the warmth of a man, the love of a family. It would be difficult, nigh on impossible, to speak those words, to confess just how far from righteousness her thoughts had drifted of late, but the ball was rolling, now, and adrenaline was pumping through her veins.
"Of course," Sister Julienne answered warmly, gesturing for her to take a seat. She did so at once, but she had no sooner settled in her chair than the telephone rang.
Saved by the bell? She wondered as she listened to Julienne's end of the call. Or damned by it? Was the sudden interruption of the telephone the Almighty's way of stopping her before she forged too far ahead, or was it merely some great cosmic joke, another obstacle thrown in her path that must be overcome?
The nature of the call must have been grave indeed, for Sister Julienne paled, and her brow furrowed with worry.
"I'll come as soon as I'm able," she said, and then she hung up the phone. "Sister Monica Joan," she told Sister Bernadette by way of explanation, and the fear that had been bubbling within the young nun's heart changed course at once; it was no longer herself she worried for, but her dear sister. Julienne rose to her feet, and Bernadette moved with her, eager to lend a hand in any way.
"What can I do to help, Sister?" she asked anxiously.
"Change nothing. Go nowhere," Julienne answered. "Carry on exactly as you are." And then she stopped, and offered Sister Bernadette a wan smile. "I really don't think I can do without you."
With those words she departed, and left Sister Bernadette's heart twisting and tortured in her wake. Pride was a sin, but one that Sister Bernadette was not unacquainted with; on any other day, to hear Sister Julienne acknowledge what a help she was, how vital she was to the continued success of Nonnatus House, would have made her proud. Now, however, it only grieved her, for she was seriously considering leaving that place, and leaving her sisters behind to fend for themselves. How could she even contemplate such a thing, she asked herself; how could she believe, even for a moment, that such a selfish choice could be the right one? But then she thought of Doctor's gentle face, and the picture Timothy had drawn for her, and in that moment she felt as if her heart were being torn in two, caught between contradictory and yet equally compelling longings.
"I think it's dreadful to waste your time like this," she was saying, and Patrick could not help but smile. He was leaning against a counter in the kitchen of the parish hall, smoking a cigarette and trying with little success to pry a list of materials for the clinic out of Sister Bernadette. She seemed to take it almost as a personal affront that they should be put down as a charitable cause for the church fete, but Patrick did not share her reticence when it came to accepting help, from whatever quarter. The donations from the fete would help them greatly, he knew, if only he could get Sister Bernadette to look at him, to speak to him plainly about what she needed. In more ways than one, he thought wryly.
"Just tell me what you want, Sister," he answered.
"We manage perfectly well, in spite of the clinic's limitations," she insisted. While she could be quite gentle Sister Bernadette's bones were made of steel; when she got her heels dug in about something, it was almost impossible to move her. That was one of many qualities Patrick found most endearing in her, usually, and even though he was trying to dissuade her he could not help but appreciate the sheer force of her own personal will. She was firecracker, this little nun, and she always kept him guessing.
"If you can't tell me what you want, then tell me what you need," he said gently, trying to push her along. She did not like to ask for things, he knew, did not like to feel as if she could not manage on her own, and he hoped that perhaps couching the question in different terms might help.
"Very well," she said finally, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Though they were alone and the situation was really rather casual she would not look at him, but that was nothing new; she had not looked in him in the eye since that night in his office, since that night she had shivered like an injured bird, since that night he had wrapped her in his arms, held her close. It had been in his mind to worry that perhaps he had overstepped, that he might face a stern talking to from Sister Evangelina, but no reprimand had come; he had not been punished beyond this distance Sister Bernadette had tried to put between them. And wasn't that an odd thing, he thought now; she had no problem voicing her opinion when she felt he had not comported himself as he should, and surely, he thought, if she did not approve of his embracing her so intimately she would have scolded him. And yet she did no such thing, only dropped her gaze and blushed prettily, and he did not know quite what to make of that. He knew what he wanted to believe, but he likewise knew that his own desires hardly factored into the bargain. She was the one who stood to lose everything, should they stray too far from the line of propriety, and so he was resolved to defer to her in this, as in most things.
"There are several screens in need of repair. And there's never enough hot water."
"Isn't there?" Patrick asked, surprised. He washed his hands in a bowl of hot water after every patient, and no one had ever told him that the water was in short supply. It had never even occurred to him to ask.
"We have to boil the kettle for you to wash your hands," she told him shyly. And though he knew it was hardly his own fault, Patrick could not help but feel a bit guilty, that the midwives were forced to go to such lengths for his own sake, while he had been utterly oblivious.
"So a water heater would be nice, above the sink." She turned then to the box she had carried into the kitchen when this conversation began, and began to carefully remove some of the items from inside. Patrick stubbed out his cigarette and moved closer to her; ostensibly he was just coming to take a peek at the contents of the box, but the truth was rather less professional; he only wanted to be near her, and he wanted, very much, for her to look at him. He would not touch her again, not without some prompting from her, but he could not bear to remain aloof from her completely. "And we struggle with these spirit lamps," she told him, lifting one out for his inspection. 'They're so old fashioned and so fragile."
It was not only the spirit lamps that were old-fashioned and fragile; Patrick rather felt as if they were, too, he and Sister Bernadette. He was fond of her - more than fond - and if circumstances had been different he might well have pursued her. But as it was he was forced to restrain himself, forced to keep his hands and his thoughts tucked away, forced to dance around the feelings that threatened to drag him under. She was an old-fashioned soul, keeping so strictly to the teachings of her church, so far removed from the music and the dancing and the films and the troubles that occupied the younger nurses. There was something almost Victorian about that sort of repression, he thought. And fragile, too, Christ, but they were fragile; one wrong word, one wrong move on either of their parts would shatter their delicate detente like glass, and bring both their lives crashing down around their ears.
"They must break so easily," he said softly as he took the spirit lamp from her, thinking how easy, how damnably easy it would be to lean towards her, to press his lips to her, to wrap his arms around her again, and how such a gesture might break them both in two.
"Yes, and the wicks get damp, and they won't burn."
As she spoke he looked up at her, and found her staring right at him, her blue eyes wide and bright and unblinking. She caught his gaze, and held it, and the breath vanished from his lungs; she was so lovely, even like this, her skin pale and smooth, her full lips, her high, sharp cheekbones, and those eyes shining like stars. If she entranced him so completely like this, how much more would she consume him if only he could see what she looked like beneath the horn-rimmed glasses, the boxy habit, the damnable whimple? What color was her hair, would the curve of her hip fit neatly in his palm?
For a moment they remained frozen, staring at one another, neither of them hardly daring to breathe. Did she know, he wondered, had she guessed that when he looked at her he thought only of holding her again, that her proximity set his mind racing with the sort of thoughts a man ought not have about a nun? And what did she see when she looked at him like this, her eyes wide and unblinking, the breath caught in her throat? Surely, he thought, surely if she did not care for him at all something as simple as standing alone together would not affect her so; if it had been Sister Evangelina in her place he knew she would not have gazed at him so hopefully. For it was hope he saw in her eyes now, or he thought it was, and his heart gave a great leap in his chest.
Patrick had resolved himself not to touch her, not to push her, to let her determine their course for herself, but she was young, and a nun; perhaps she wanted, just as he did, perhaps her heart yearned, just as his own did, but she did not know what to do, what to say. Perhaps she was looking for some sign from him, just as he was looking for a sign from her. Perhaps the time had come, he thought, to set aside the musing of his heart, and face this thing between them outright. Perhaps it was foolish, to so easily forget the restrictions he had imposed on himself, but patience had never been his strong suit.
Moving slowly, carefully, he set the spirit lamp aside, and then with a trembling hand he reached for her. His heart was racing, his lungs constricting with the need to take a breath he could not seem to capture; this is madness, he thought, but he did it anyway, cradled her cheek in his palm and felt, for the first time, the softness of her skin beneath his hand. How he had longed for this, and how his imagining paled in comparison to the reality of it, the warmth of her, soft and willing in his hands. At his touch her eyes fluttered closed and a little gasp slipped past her lips, and he watched her, spellbound and hopeful that she should respond to him so warmly. If she did not want him, if she did not approve of him, surely she would have pulled away by now, but she had done no such thing, only pressed her face against his hand as his thumb traced a gentle line across her cheekbone, awestruck by the beauty of her, the precious grace of this moment. She was beautiful, and here with him, suspended in this one instant, this fragile intimacy so chaste and yet so full of implication, and he tensed, prepared himself to pull her towards him, to declare his intentions for once and all and see where their hopeful hearts might take them, but his dreams were laid waste in a moment.
"Dad!" Timothy called out, and Patrick snatched his hand away from Sister Bernadette just in time to tuck it in his pocket as Timothy came bounding into the kitchen. Sister Bernadette was breathing heavily, her eyes still closed though she had turned away from him, was gripping the counter for dear life.
"Yes, son?" Patrick answered. Saved by the bell, he thought ruefully; he could not say what might have happened, had Tim not appeared when he did, but the thing was done, and he could not take the moment back. She must know, now, what he felt for her, what he wanted, and he tried to tell himself that their time would come, that another moment must surely present itself. Tim began to chatter at him, and so Patrick took a very deep breath, and tried to focus on his son, and not the clamoring of his own desperate heart.
20 May 1958
"I thought I might find you here," a soft voice echoed in the chapel, and Sister Bernadette lifted her head, horrified to see that it was Sister Julienne, watching her with a warm - if somewhat pitying - expression. Sister Bernadette had hoped that the day's demands and preparations for the church fete would allow her a few minutes' peace in this place, but it would appear that was not to be, for Sister Julienne had found her, and was even now crossing the room to sit beside her on one of the hard chairs that lined their modest sanctuary.
"I do love this little chapel," Sister Julienne said, her eyes dancing across the room while a fond smile bloomed across her face. "I always find I feel closer to God in smaller, more humble places like this. There's something so...genuine, about the faith that sustains such a place of prayer and communion, don't you agree?"
Sister Bernadette could do no more than nod in mute agreement; yes, she had always felt closer to God in this chapel than in any of the grander cathedrals she'd ever set foot inside, but God was not with her now, and she felt so terribly lonesome, abandoned and lost at sea.
"This place was not built to glorify the skills of man, to be the tallest or the most exquisite church. It was built as a place of reflection, built of love, and I feel that love here."
I used to feel it, too, Sister Bernadette thought despondently, but now I feel only fear when I step inside this place, and it has been so long since I've felt any peace. She did not speak her thoughts aloud, however; the courage that had taken her to Sister Julienne's door days before had fled, and she was in no way prepared to give an accounting of herself and her troubles now. But she suspected that Sister Julienne had not come to sit beside her in silent communion, and her fears were proved right in a moment.
"Sister Bernadette, I owe you an apology. You asked to speak to me, and I was distracted, and now Sister Monica Joan has spoken out of turn."
For a moment Sister Bernadette stared at her compatriot, utterly aghast; she had hoped, before now, that Sister Monica Joan's comments had been forgotten by all and sundry, reckoned as no more than another of the occasional flights of fancy that beset her beleaguered mind. And yet Sister Julienne was watching her closely, her brow furrowed with concern, and beneath that frank stare Sister Bernadette could not hide from herself, or the torment of her own soul. But now no face divine contentment wears, Sister Monica Joan had said, 'tis all blank sadness, and continual tears. And though Sister Bernadette had done her best to brush aside her sister's worries for her she knew that those words were true enough, for she had spent hours, days in this place, on her knees, begging for guidance she was beginning to suspect would never come. Sister Monica Joan had even found her at her prayers, once, had knelt beside her and tried to comfort her. She felt as if her very soul was being torn in two, caught between two incompatible but equally compelling longings. On the one hand was the religious life, her life, the structure and stability that calmed her, the joy that came from humble service, the companionship and affection of her sisters, the certainty of a life that was familiar to her. And on the other side was him, with his warm eyes and his dark hair she longed to run her fingers through, his strong arms that seemed made to hold her, the love she hoped he felt for her, a life so foreign and alien to her she could hardly imagine it.
"I didn't want anyone to notice," she confessed miserably. "I didn't want to impose myself, to make any sort of demand on the community." I didn't want you to see my weakness, I didn't want you to send me away, I didn't want to make this choice, but now I fear I must.
"It is not an imposition, to ask for help," Sister Julienne reminded her gently. "And you did ask for help, and I have come to offer what I can." She was watching Sister Bernadette expectantly, and dread settled low in her gut. Much as she might wish it were not so it seemed the moment had come, the moment when she would have to unburden herself, but where should she begin? That day she first met Doctor Turner, when his hands had settled on her waist and lit a fire within her that had only grown over the last year and more? Or perhaps it was that night in his office, speaking softly to one another of their faith, the way he'd told her she was the first thing he'd ever seen that made him believe God might be real after all, the way she'd begun to believe that God had placed him in her path for a purpose? Perhaps she ought to explain that quiet evening when the Doctor had asked for her real name, or the afternoon when she'd shared his cigarette, or the day he'd taken her in his arms and held her close, or that moment in the kitchen in the parish hall, when he'd looked into her eyes and her heart had begun to race, when his soft hand had cradled her cheek and she'd closed her eyes against the sudden, desperate desire she felt to kiss him. How could she speak of any of this, here, in this place, with Sister Julienne? How could she confess such base truths, and not be utterly destroyed by them?
"The truth is that I hardly know what ails me," she said haltingly. The truth is I am not sure if he is the illness or the cure, and I'm terrified of the answer. The truth is that I have been weak, and allowed doubt to flourish in my heart, and now I fear I'm not worthy to sit beside you.
"I almost wish I was physically ill." I wish you could offer me medicine, and heal me of this turmoil. "I want to be able to say this is where it hurts because if I could list my symptoms, you could offer me a cure. But you can't. Because I can't." I can't tell her, God help me, I can't. She'll send me away, if she knows what I've done, how far I've allowed this to go. I will lose my sisters, and I will lose him, and I don't know what will become of me.
"But we have made a start, Sister Bernadette," Sister Julienne told her, taking both of Sister Bernadette's hands in her own. The warmth, the tenderness of her sister's touch, the knowledge that Sister Julienne was offering her compassion when she felt herself most undeserving of such kindness, loosed the first of the tears she'd so far only just managed to hold back. Hysteria began to wind its way thick and choking up the back of her throat while her sister spoke. "We're having a conversation."
"I think this is all that I can manage for today," Sister Bernadette managed to choke out. Her thoughts were chaotic and confusing, and she was certain she could not express herself clearly now if she tried. She needed time, just a little more time, needed to be able to come to Sister Julienne when she was ready, and not be caught off guard as she had been this afternoon.
"That doesn't matter," Julienne said, giving her hands a little squeeze, and the trickling stream of her tears became a flood in an instant. "I will be here, when you're ready."
Sister Bernadette could not answer, could only cling to her sister's hands and weep.
"You really aren't very good at this you know," Tim grumbled as Patrick knelt beside him, untying their legs after yet another unsuccessful attempt at practicing for the three-legged race. "You're too tall."
Patrick laughed as he stood back up, ruffling his son's hair. "Well, there's nothing we can do about that now, I'm afraid. And you're one to talk! Look at you, you'll be taller than me soon."
Much as he might wish things were different, he could hardly deny that Tim was growing up. He had not yet reached the stage of sullen teenage isolation, but it seemed to Patrick that every time he turned around his son was a little bit taller, a little bit wiser. The days of Tim's childhood were quickly racing away, and Patrick longed, with all his heart, to hold onto them, just a little while longer. The time would soon come when Tim would have no interest at all in running a three-legged race with his father at the church fete; in a few years' time, Patrick suspected he would find Tim and Jack smoking pilfered cigarettes behind the parish hall instead of joining in the festivities.
"I tried to tell Baloo I'm too tall to be Maid Marion, but he said Jack's taller so he gets to be Robin Hood."
"Maid Marion is a very important part!" Patrick told him, trying to hide his laughter while he encouraged his son. "You can't have Robin Hood without Maid Marion." Behind every good man there is a better woman, isn't that what they say? Who would Robin be, without his lady love? The thought chased the smile from Patrick's face, for when he closed his eyes it was Sister Bernadette's face he saw, the delicate blush that painted her cheeks when he touched her, the way her brilliant eyes had fluttered closed in response to his hand against her skin. He was a man hopelessly in love with a woman, he knew that now, understood it in a way that left his heart twisting in agony. He had not been able to keep his distance from her, had not been able to respect her wishes - although, to be fair, he wasn't entirely sure what those wishes were, when it came to him - and he had stepped so far beyond the line of propriety as to shame himself. What sort of man would do such a thing, touch a nun in such a way, encourage her with every word and every look to betray the principles that formed the very backbone of her life?
"I still don't want to do it. What if the girls see me in that dress and make fun of me?"
Oh, Christ, Patrick thought dismally, have we reached that point already? It was far too soon, he thought, for Tim to be worrying about girls and what they thought of him.
"Oh, girls love a performer," he said gaily. "You've seen how excited everyone is to see Clifford Raines at the baby show. You've got nothing to worry about, Tim. It'll be fun, you'll see."
That seemed to mollify him somewhat, and they trooped back inside the flat to see about some supper. Tim was full of chatter, about school, about the Cubs, about their chances of winning the three-legged race this year, and redeeming themselves after their appalling failure the year before. Patrick did his best to listen intently, or at least give the appearance of listening, but his thoughts were running riot inside his mind. So much had changed, since the church fete last year; then he had been fairly new to Poplar, and he had approached the festivities with some trepidation, unsure of whether he would find a friend there in the crowd. But he had, of course he had; she had been there, and they had spoken quietly to one another. Had that been the moment, he wondered, when he first fell under her spell? When she had told him softly there is no right or wrong way to grieve? Or had it been earlier, that first day when he'd felt the warmth of her beneath his hands, when he'd seen her comforting his son? Had there been one moment at all, or was it just the sum of moments, a thousand tiny steps that had led him from desolation and grief into this new valley so filled with wild hopes?
He could not say, not with any certainty, but in his heart he knew it did not matter. The thing was done; he loved her, most completely, but that love could never be.
24 May 1958
It was a beautiful day for a party. The sun shone brightly, the weather was warm, and everyone was in good spirits. Laughter and joy and music filled the little square where they'd gathered beside the parish hall; everywhere Sister Bernadette looked she saw children running, balloons held tight in pudgy fists, parents sipping punch and catching up with their neighbors. It was exactly what they'd all wanted, what they'd worked so hard to achieve; yes the main goal of the day was to raise money for the lepers in Ceylon - and for the mother and baby clinic, though Sister Bernadette still had some misgivings about asking for donations from the very people they were meant to serve - but more than that the nuns and the midwives and everyone who'd been enlisted to assist them in preparations had been striving to put together an event that would bring joy to Poplar, and foster the sense of community and neighborly love that made it such a special place to live.
It was special, she knew. There were other boroughs in London far less cheery, and far less welcoming. There were places where one only went home to sleep, and never did more than nod at one's neighbors. Not so, in Poplar. Living in Poplar meant being part of a family; a poor family, to be sure, a family that lacked some necessities and conveniences, a family that brawled, at times, a family that hid secrets, but a family nonetheless. There was love, in this place, and no one here was ever alone, ever without help. There was something beautiful about that, she thought, in a world where progress and technological advances were driving a wedge between people and their neighbors. It was one of the reasons she loved Poplar so much, and one of the reasons she was so very loath to leave it.
Nothing had been decided, as yet. Her heart did not know, yet, what it truly desired, what waited for her in the future. A conversation had begun with Sister Julienne, and while Sister Bernadette had not found the courage to continue it she knew she could not put it off indefinitely. Indeed, if she waited too long she might be sent to the Mother House to get her thoughts in order, and and thus be forced to make a decision as surely as she would have been should she confess herself to Sister Julienne. A choice lay before her feet; she must confess to Julienne, of that there was no doubt. The fork in the road came after that confession. If she chose to stay with the order she would be forced to go to the Mother House, to be reassigned to another convent in order to keep her out of mischief, and never see Doctor Turner, or her Sisters, or this place that had become her home, ever again. If she chose to leave the order she could remain in Poplar, but to do so would mean divorcing herself from her old life, would mean walking down the street with her head uncovered, and knowing that every person who passed her by would see her and mark her as a wanton beast, a woman who had betrayed her vows, God himself, for the sake of a man. She knew what lay in store for her, should she leave; the structure of the religious life did not change with one's location. In time she would settle in, and thoughts of the Doctor might well fade. If she chose to stay, however...she did not know whether the Doctor would accept her, whether he would even want her, what would become of her when her neighbors scorned her and her sisters could no longer love her as they once had done.
It was a terrible choice, and yet the moment of its making was hurtling towards her. Even on a day as fine and bright as this one she fancied she could almost hear it, racing towards her as a train rumbling down the tracks. The moment of impact was coming, and she was not certain whether she would survive it.
The Cubs were putting on a little show, and she gravitated there along with most of the crowd. The children's bright faces always brought her joy, and even on this day when her heart was so heavy she could not help but smile. Young Timothy had been cast as Maid Marian; needs must, she supposed, when all the actors were boys it was inevitable that one must be forced into the role of a girl. But Tim played his part with good humor, hamming it up next to Jack, who had won the coveted part of Robin Hood. The boys' faces were cheerful, and the audience was laughing; Sister Bernadette turned to gaze out across the crowd, but her eye caught on a familiar face, and stayed there a while.
Doctor was smiling, as he watched his son perform. His gaze was warm and open, and oh, that smile...Sister Bernadette did so love to see him smile. There was such kindness in him, such compassion; within his chest there beat a heart true and full of love for everyone, but his son more than anyone else in the world. The way Doctor doted upon the boy, the way he spoke to Tim with such respect as few fathers in Poplar afforded their children, the way he listened intently to whatever Tim had to say, the way he tried so bloody hard to be everything that boy needed; the way Doctor loved his son was one of the things Sister Bernadette loved most about him. He was, she thought, the sort of father every child deserved, and it saddened her to think he had only been blessed with one child, that he had not been given the chance to shower the full depth of his love and affection on a whole brood of children. There was room enough in his heart, she knew, to make room for another child, for a dozen, and she smiled for a moment, imagining him holding a baby in his arms as she had seen him do countless times before, imagining him holding an infant that was his own, imagining the joy that would bring to him.
Though she had long since set aside any hope of having a baby of her own the longing remained within her, and as she looked at Doctor now she realized that if ever she were to be granted such a blessing he was exactly the sort of father she would want for her own child. Tender, and compassionate, good-humored and patient, he was...oh, he was everything she'd ever wanted. He carried so much love within himself and she wanted, so badly, to claim a piece of that love for her own.
You ought not think such things, she tried to tell herself, a blush staining her cheeks as still she watched him, saw him laughing at Tim's antics up on the stage. She was getting ahead of herself, thinking about babies and Doctor and having a child of her own, when no choice had been made, when she did not know if he would accept her. Perhaps he was content with one child, and perhaps the wife he'd had was the only one he'd ever need.
As she watched Jenny Lee came racing through the crowd and caught Doctor by the arm. Sister Bernadette was too far away to hear their conversation, but she saw the way the Doctor's smile fled from his face, and worry clenched around her heart like a vice. As Doctor and Jenny ran off through the crowd Sister Bernadette looked up at the stage, and she saw the disappointment on Timothy's face, and knew then that she was not the only one who had marked the Doctor's departure, and lamented because of it.
As soon as he stopped the car Patrick was on his feet and running, desperately trying to make it back to the fete in time for the three-legged race. Nurse Lee had been right to send for him, and he was glad that he had been there to do what he could, but that poor mother was beyond his help now, and it would not do to brood on thoughts of her terrible misfortune, and neglect his own child. He wanted, very much, to see Timothy, wanted to play with him, hear his laugh, and forget the troubles that plagued his mind, to set aside the agony of the day and instead bask in the joy of his own son's childhood for just a little while longer. The world was full of hopeless cases like Mrs. Harding's, and there was nothing more that could be done to help her, not now.
The call of voices spurred him on, and he raced towards the commotion, bulling a path through the crowd just in time to see Timothy and Sister Bernadette leading the pack in the three-legged race. They made quite a sight, the boy and the nun, tethered together at the ankles, and Timothy nearly of a height with her despite the fact that he was only ten and she was a woman grown. Their faces were bright and triumphant, and they were moving at a good clip. Joy swelled within him, and love along with it; though he had once again been forced to place his duties as a GP above his duties as a father Sister Bernadette had stepped in without prompting, had seen this need and sought to do what she could to fill it, had set aside her pride and the reserve her habit required of her in order to help Tim. She had done this out of love, not just for Patrick but for his boy, too, and oh, how he loved her for that. She had, from the very first, been nothing but kind and encouraging to Tim, and the boy plainly adored her, and it was that, as much as anything else, that filled Patrick's head with dreams of what might be, if only she would accept him.
"Come on, Sister!" he cheered, racing along beside them, his heart beating wildly in his chest. "Come on, Timothy!" They were nearing the finish line, and well ahead of everyone else, and the sheer delight on their faces was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. The year before Patrick and Timothy had lost the race rather abysmally and his hopes had not been great as regarded their potential this year, but with Sister Bernadette beside him Timothy was on the course for victory, and not alone despite his father's absence. He had been too much alone, in the last year and a half, but now he was safe in the care of a woman who loved him, and if Patrick were being honest with himself there was nothing he wanted more than for Tim - and himself - to never be without the love of a woman again. And this woman, this love she offered, was so much brighter, so much lovelier, than any he had ever dared hope to receive.
They crossed the finish line together, Timothy and Sister Bernadette and Patrick racing in from the sidelines, but just as they did good fortune deserted them, and they went tumbling to the ground together. Concern replaced Patrick's delight in a moment as he saw them both go flying, landing on their hands and knees; it had been such a wonderful moment, and he did not want to see it ruined by blood and pain. In a moment he was kneeling before them, but Tim was laughing, still, and though her glasses had tumbled from her nose Sister Bernadette seemed to be in fine spirits.
"We won!" Timothy crowed, making to break away at once, forgetting in his glee that he was still tied to Sister Bernadette.
"Timothy!" Patrick barked. "You can't go anywhere. Now hold still!"
Though he was all but vibrating with excitement Timothy stood still just long enough for Sister Bernadette to untie them; Patrick had reached out to do it himself but she had stopped him with a look, and he only then had he realized it would be most improper for him to reach beneath her habit, to risk his fingertips brushing against her ankle. Feeling a bit chastised and with nothing to keep his hands busy he looked around, and located the Sister's glasses. No sooner had he picked them up than Timothy was off like a shot, no doubt wanting to claim his prize and bask in the glory of his victory, and Patrick and Sister Bernadette were left alone, though the laughter of the crowd reminded them that they did in fact have an audience. Still crouching before her Patrick handed over her glasses, and Sister Bernadette accepted them with good grace.
"Thank you, Doctor," she said, and they rose as one; Patrick could not take his eyes from her face. In the moments before she placed her glasses on her nose once more he had seen the brilliance of her eyes unobstructed by the horn-rimmed frames, and he had been struck, yet again, by how damnably beautiful she was, especially like this, the color high in her cheeks, her smile brighter than the sun. There was a roaring in his head that made coherent though all but impossible; she was beautiful, and gentle, and he could still recall the warmth of her skin beneath his hand, and she had done this kindness for his son, and he wanted -
He wanted so many things, but they were in the midst of a crowd, and now was not his moment.
"You've hurt your hand," he said suddenly, realizing as she adjusted her glasses that there was a streak of blood across her palm.
She held her out hand to examine it, her chest rising and falling with each of her rapid breaths, the wooden cross she wore around her neck swaying dangerously and drawing his gaze to places it ought not go.
"Oh!" she said, a bit breathlessly. "Well, I'm sure there's no need to amputate." Why does she seem so nervous? He wondered. Does she think I mean to take her hand, here in front of all and sundry? If she thought it he could not blame her, for he wanted to. "If you'll excuse me."
She turned and left him then, no doubt intending to make her way inside the parish hall to see to her injury. For a moment Patrick watched her go, his heart having swung from delight to desolation so quickly that it left him feeling a bit dizzy. Why had she felt the need to run from him? Why could they not have just one blessed moment to themselves, one moment in which to be honest and open about what they wanted from one another, one moment when he could tell her just how very much she meant to him, how grateful he was to her, how desperately he needed her? Why did the universe always see fit to drive some wedge between them? And why were there always so bloody many people about?
There's no one in the parish hall, a little voice seemed to whisper to him then. She's alone in there, and no one to see, and you may never get a moment better than this one.
Grinning like a madman then he took off running, racing towards the parish hall, towards the kitchen where he knew he would find her standing by the sink, towards one single moment of peace, towards her.
24 May 1958
She had run from him, not because she wanted to, not because she was afraid of him, but because when she looked into his eyes she had seen warmth there, and concern, and affection, and her own heart had begun to clamor so loudly she feared he might be able to hear it. The time had not yet come for her to make any sort of confession to him, for her to tell him how deeply she cared for him - if indeed that time would come at all. She could not tell him the truth of her heart before she'd spoken of it to Sister Julienne, and she had worried in that moment that if he looked into her eyes he would see the dire longing she could not hide, and all would be lost.
The cut on her hand was not so very deep, but it stung rather bitterly. She stood alone in the kitchen of the parish hall, letting the cool water soothe her hurt, letting it wash the dirt and gravel from her skin, trying to focus on the throbbing of her hand and the slide of the water and not the way her heart pounded when Doctor Turner drew near, not the way the sound of his voice cheering for her had sent a shiver excitement racing down her spine. It was right, that she should leave him, no matter how dearly she wished it wasn't, and she tried to remind herself of that. In helping Tim to win the race she had done her part to make sure the boy did not feel his father's absence too keenly, and now that Doctor had returned there was no longer any of need her. He would look after his boy, as was his right and his joy, and she would go about her own duties, and they would continue as they were, dancing around one another and yet saying nothing of import. That was the way that things must be, and she tried to content herself with it.
It would seem that Doctor had other plans, however, for she had been only standing in the kitchen for a minute or two when she heard a voice call out softly behind her.
"Would you like me to have a look at that?"
She looked up sharply, and there he was, tall and proud and handsome, watching her with concern written on every line of his face. His voice had been soft, and his eyes were soft as he looked at her now, demanding nothing, seeking only to help. That was his way; he always wanted to help, sought to cure whatever ailment he discovered, physical or otherwise. He was a generous sort of man, giving of himself, his time, his resources, always giving to others, and the thought that she should be on the receiving end of his generosity set her heart to fluttering in her chest. They were alone, now, properly alone for the first time since that afternoon when he had taken her in his arms, when he had held her close and she had felt, however briefly, treasured and safe, at peace with him wrapped around her. No one would come looking for them here; she doubted whether anyone had marked their absence. With so much merry making to be done outside no one would have any cause to step into the parish hall; they could linger here together, out of sight, could say or do whatever they wished.
It was a heady thought, and a terrifying one. The moment stretched between them, tense and taut with yearning. He wanted to help, she knew he did, but she likewise knew that if it had been Sister Julienne with a cut to her palm Doctor would not have looked at her the way he was looking at Sister Bernadette now. There would not have been half so much concern, half so much affection on his face, and he would not have approached her so carefully, so hesitantly. He had come for her, for Sister Bernadette, and the expression he wore now was one he reserved for her, and her alone. He had come for her, and he was approaching her cautiously, reverently, as if he did not feel himself worthy of this moment and all its potential for disaster and for bliss.
Did she want him to look at her hand? To take her hand in his own as he had never done before, to brush his fingertips over her skin, to give of his time and attentions, to share this moment with her and another, and another? There was hardly any need; the cut was long but not deep enough to require stitches, and she had flushed away the gravel. All she needed was a bandage, and she could manage that herself well enough; her injury hardly rose to a level that would require Doctor's care. And yet he had come to her, and he had made this offer of himself, and the way he was looking at her set her blood to burning in her veins.
"Yes," she answered before she could think better of it, holding out her hand for his inspection. Yes, she wanted his time, his touch, his care, wanted this moment of blissful torture, wanted to be so close to him though she knew nothing could, or would, come of such proximity. His nearness was a gift to her, all the gift she could hope to receive from him, and she accepted it gladly.
He approached her slowly, cautiously, as if he felt, even as she did, that there was more happening here than a doctor tending to a patient. As if he could feel, even as she did, the silence and the solitude settling all around them, promising them both so much more. As if he wanted, as she did, to see what joy - or desolation - this moment might bring them.
Gently, reverently, he reached for her; he slipped his left hand beneath her own, cradled her gently against his palm. His hand was broad and strong, far bigger than her own, his skin rough from years of hot water and antiseptic, but his touch was tender, and did not wound her. There was blessing in that touch, a depth of care, as if he knew that he cradled something precious in his palm, as if he knew how delicate this moment was, and had determined to treat her as gently as he was able. As if he was, in his own way, protecting her, and oh, how she longed for his protection, longed to be vulnerable and open and yet safe with him, knowing that she could trust him, that he would never, could never hurt.
He lifted his right hand and traced his fingertips against her palm, and she could not stop the soft gasp that escaped her; his touch was featherlight, more gentle than she would have imagined a man that tall, that strong could be. No doubt he was checking to see if she were bruised, confirming for himself that no bones were broken, but in that moment she could not help but wonder how it might feel to have those gentle fingertips whisper across her skin in other places, more sacred places, places where she had never before imagined any other might tread, and yet where she wanted him to go now, wanted it so fiercely that her heart ached and her belly flooded with heat at the very idea.
It was suddenly, impossibly difficult to breathe. He held her spellbound in that moment, his touch so sure, so steady; he would know what to do, if she lifted her gaze to his face now, if he looked down on her and saw the yearning in her eyes. He would know how to hold her, how to pull her close, how to slant his lips across her own and draw out every secret from the depths of her very soul. The moment was precious, and precarious; the world shifting beneath her feet as sand on a beach, unpredictable, unstable, but exciting, just the same. She could feel the rapid rise and fall of her own chest, unable to quell her panting breaths, her eyes focused unblinking on the course of his fingertips round her skin. Could he tell, she wondered, how deeply his touch moved her; did he know how long it had been, since last anyone had touched her with such care, such affection? Did he know how she yearned for it, burned for it; could he see her gasping for breath, desperate for him? Part of her hoped - prayed - that he could, and yet part of her was terrified at the very thought.
This is madness.
The thought slipped through his mind for a moment, but he did not linger on it. Her skin was soft, the bones and tendons and muscles of her hand delicate and finely made, beautiful, as every part of her was beautiful, and it was that beauty that called to him, more than most anything else. She had to have known, when he asked his question, that her injury did not require any serious attention. She had to have known, he thought, that there was no need for this gentle exploration, that he was touching her as much for his own gratification as for her well-being. She had to have known that it was want that compelled him, that brought him to this place; he could not imagine, not for one moment, that she was utterly blind to his interest in her. There had been too many moments, too many careful overtures, too many casual intimacies, for her not to realize that he felt more for her than he did for her sisters.
And yet she did not leave him. She did not pull her hand back, when his touch shifted from a doctor's perusal to a man's caress. She did not speak, did not try to lighten the moment with some clever quip as she had done while they stood together in the midst of the fete; she only stood, still and quiet, submitting to his attentions, and it was her complacency, her commitment to this moment as the seconds ticked by and no diagnosis came from him, that began to sway him.
Patrick had come to this place intent on speaking to her earnestly, openly of his heart, but he was beginning to wonder whether words were necessary at all. They had so often let silence speak for them, had chosen to express themselves with deeds rather than with words, and this moment seemed too beautiful, too perfect for him to sully it with some rambling explanation of his affections. He was staring at the cut on her palm, no longer bleeding but red and terrible to look at it, but he could see the way her chest rose and fell with heavy, rapid breaths. He could see the cross swaying ponderously around her neck, could hear the little hitching gasp that escaped her at his touch. As his fingertips danced across the delicate skin of her wrist he could feel the leaping of her pulse, and he read each of these signs with the wisdom, not of a doctor well-versed in the physical body, but of a man well-versed in the art of love, and he knew what it was her body was telling him. As much as her proximity was affecting him he was having much the same effect upon her, and she was not pulling away from him, was not running from the desire they were slowly cultivating together in the shadows of the kitchen.
He had come to this place intent on revealing the depth of his regard for her, and with each beat of his heart he grew more certain that this was his moment. There would never be another time as perfect as this, another moment when they were completely, utterly alone, another moment when the fever of want burned through them as deliciously, as torturously as it did now. The time had come; for the sake of her habit and her innocent heart he knew that he must be the one to fling them from this precipice, knew she would not risk her calling, her place in their community, her very life without some sign from him.
And so drawing on every last bit of courage he possessed, Patrick took a very deep breath, and bowed his head.
He moved very slowly; he wanted her to know what it was he intended to do, wanted her to watch him, to see for herself how completely he adored her, wanted to give her a chance, one final opportunity to stop him. With his left hand cradling hers he lifted her hand up, closed his eyes as a sinner before a holy altar, and then pressed a tender, desperate kiss against her skin. Every ounce of the love he bore her, every hope he treasured in his heart he gave to her then, delivered himself into her hands as surely as if he had spoken of his love aloud. It was the only avenue open to him, and he took it willingly, with a heart full of dreams, wishing with every piece of himself that she would hear his plea, that she would understand it, that she would accept him, gladly and with love.
Time seemed to freeze, as his lips pressed against her palm, but then there came a sudden, terrifying interruption the likes of which he had not before imagined, and he was swung from joy to desolation so suddenly that for an instant he fancied he could actually feel his heart breaking in his chest.
Sister Julienne did not shriek, for she did not need to. She was possessed of too much grace, too much dignity, to shout or flail her arms about or otherwise make a scene. She had only to call out his name, and Sister Bernadette gasped and snatched her hand away, and that one moment of bliss seemed to shatter all around him. He stepped back as Sister Julienne all but flew into the room; she went straight to Sister Bernadette and wrapped her arm around her shoulders, and Patrick's wounded heart broke still further at the sight of silent tears streaming down Sister Bernadette's cheeks.
24 May 1958
"Sister, please," Patrick said, all but begging though he could not say for certain to which Sister it was he addressed his earnest plea. He only knew that he needed them - both of them - to understand him, to forgive him, to think no less of him now than they had done this morning. He did not know how much Sister Julienne had seen, but from the look on her face - not one of thunderous anger but rather one of sorrowful disapproval - he gathered she must have seen him bow his head, press his lips against Sister Bernadette's palm, and she must have drawn her own conclusion from Sister Bernadette's sharp intake of breath, from the tears that now streamed silently down her cheeks. Those conclusions, whatever they might be, could not possibly have shown him in a positive light.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave, Doctor Turner." It was strange, really, how Sister Julienne could be so calm even when she was distressed, how she could dismiss him almost gently despite the fact that she no doubt thought him an immoral cad, taking advantage of an innocent young woman.
"Sister, please," he said again, taking a trembling step towards her, though Sister Julienne's grip only tightened around Sister Bernadette's shoulders, "let me explain." The flash of anger in her eyes stopped him in his tracks.
"I shall speak with you in due course, Doctor," she told him. "In the meantime, I suggest you go outside, and see to your son."
It was neatly done, that reminder of his station, that reminder of his responsibilities; he could hardly argue with her, and so his shoulders slumped in defeat. In due course, she'd said, though Patrick did not know whether that meant he would have the opportunity to plead his case later in the day, or if he would be forced to linger in some terrible purgatory, forced out of the conversation altogether while Sister Julienne made all the decisions. He could not linger, not after such clear direction from her, and so he turned and left that place, his heart aching, his mind awash with doubts and grief.
What wounded him most of all, more than anything, was that Sister Bernadette did not once look him in the eye. It had taken all his courage to touch her so boldly, to kiss her with every ounce of the love he felt for her, but he had not been allowed the opportunity to speak with her, to find out for himself what it was she felt, what she wanted; how could he find a way forward, if he did not know whether she cared for him - loved him - as he did for her, whether she was willing to set aside her habit and the constraints of her life and follow him into shadows? What he needed, more than anything, was to hear the truth from her own lips, and so, though it was reckless and most improper, he did not depart entirely, only passed through the curtain and ducked round the corner, out of sight but close enough to hear the sisters' conversation, close enough to hold his breath, and listen, and hope that what he heard might offer him some guidance.
The moment Doctor left Sister Bernadette's quiet tears turned to sobs in earnest; she was so devastated she could hardly breathe, could not find the words to speak, to save herself and the man she loved from their rapidly shifting circumstances. In response to her distress Sister Julienne turned her deftly, wrapped her in a warm embrace as soft as any mother's, and in that moment she felt as if her heart must surely be shredding itself to pieces. Only moments before she had been so full of hope, had felt an unparalleled joy at the thought that Doctor might care as much for her as she did for him, that her affection might be returned in kind, that the dreams of love and family that had so consumed her of late might have a chance to blossom into something beautiful. But Sister Julienne's sudden arrival had thrown everything into chaos; Sister Bernadette would be forced to explain herself, now, to make the choice she'd been putting off for so long, without any chance of speaking to Doctor first. She did not even know the man's proper name and she would have to choose, now, whether she would hold to her faith and her steady way of life or break with everything she'd ever known, ever believed about herself, for the sake of a man. Sister Julienne's tender touch only reminded her of the love of her sisters, the love of her God, the love she was weighing against whatever Doctor might feel for her, the love she was seriously considering throwing back in their teeth, and the touch of that love left her breathless with grief.
"Oh, my dear girl," Sister Julienne said softly, sadly, her words muffled against the fabric of Sister Bernadette's whimple. "This is what you wanted to talk to me about, isn't it? Doctor Turner has been taking liberties and you didn't know what to do."
"No!" Sister Bernadette gasped, fear overtaking her sorrow for a moment, compelling her to speak through her choking tears. Whatever happened next she could not allow Sister Julienne to believe that Doctor had been tormenting her, that she wished to avoid his attentions, that she was frightened of him. She loved him, and she feared that love, but she did not fear him, for she knew that he would never, could never hurt her. It would be a lie, the gravest sort of sin, to allow Sister Julienne to place the blame squarely on Doctor Turner, and save none for Bernadette herself.
"I saw him touch you," Sister Julienne said slowly as Bernadette took a step back from her, scrubbed her hands across her cheeks and tried to calm her racing heart, tried to make some sense of her thoughts, tried to find the words with which to defend herself, and her Doctor. "I saw him kiss you, Sister, and I saw your tears then, and now. It looks to me as if Doctor Turner has wildly overstepped-"
"You are right in that I did not ask for this," Sister Bernadette said breathlessly, miserably, only realizing after she'd spoken that she'd just interrupted Sister Julienne for perhaps the very first time since they'd met. But it was the truth, and Sister Julienne needed to hear it; she had not asked for this, had not asked him to kiss her, to show her so plainly the depth of his affection for her, but she had accepted his offer of aid knowing what it meant, and when he touched her hand so tenderly she had not pulled away.
"But if you believe I did not want it then you're wrong," she continued desperately, unable to look Sister Julienne in the eye as she confessed to her wanton, willful heart, to the quiet desires that had set her aflame in recent days, and threatened to consume her utterly. "I have wanted it so much…" her voice was hardly more than a whisper, the agony of saying such a thing, to Sister Julienne all of people, here, now, almost more than she could bear. She was not meant to want, to yearn, was not meant to dream of a life beyond the walls of Nonnatus House, and in that moment she realized that perhaps the choice she had been dreading had already been made, long before. Every time she stood alone with him, spoke softly with him, sought him out, every frog she'd taken from him, every favor she'd done for Timothy, every time she'd left him hold her, let him see past her defenses, she had chosen to disregard the rules of decorum, the edicts of her faith. She had chosen, time and time again, and she had chosen him.
"I have ached in ways I did not know it was possible to ache." I have ached for things that would make me blush even now to think of them, have longed for his touch, and I am not worthy of your love or God's mercy, for I fear the selfish desires of my heart have already led me so far from the path of righteousness that I will never be recovered. It's him I want, though I be damned for it.
At last she lifted her head, and found Sister Julienne watching her thoughtfully, silently; it was a blessing, she thought, that Julienne had found them, and not Evangelina, for it was Julienne's grace she needed in this moment, her quiet understanding, and not Evangelina's rigid authoritarianism. But she had only a moment, one single, too-short instant to look into her sister's eyes and judge her mood, for in the very next breath there came the sharp sound of a footfall behind them, and she turned on her heel to find Doctor marching across the kitchen, his face a picture of tortured grief.
"Sister, please," he said, appealing to Sister Julienne though his eyes were fixed on Sister Bernadette. And in his eyes she saw it, saw the wild hope of a desperate love eager to plead its case, and her own fractured heart gave a great leap in her chest. As he stumbled to a halt in front of them he made as if to reach for her, as if he meant to take her hand there and then, but he thought better of it and tucked his own hand back into his pocket, and though Sister Bernadette knew he'd made the right choice she could not help but wish he'd been brave enough to take hold of her, for there was nothing she wanted more in this moment than to touch him.
"Please," he begged, desperately, "please, there is nothing I want more than to marry her."
The breath vanished from Sister Bernadette's lungs and for one mad moment she feared she might faint on the spot. Events were moving so quickly, too quickly, everything spiraling out of her control, her very soul swinging wildly from elation to terror and back again. But of course he had not waited, had chosen not to bide his time, had come rushing in eager to save the day, to mend both their wounded hearts in the only way he knew how; that was her Doctor, through and through, reckless, brash, and more dear to her than anyone else in the world.
"Doctor-" Sister Julienne started to object, but he would not hear her.
"I will get down on one knee right here if you require it of me," he told her, and his voice was so very raw and so very earnest that Sister Bernadette knew those words to be truth. He would, for her, would take her hand, would shelter her, protect her, love her, as she had dreamed he might, and it was everything she ever wanted, and everything that scared her most.
"No," Sister Julienne said firmly, and Doctor's shoulders slumped, his eyes still fixed on Bernadette, and it was strange but in that moment she felt as if she could hear his very thoughts, as if she could see him, even then, wondering whether she did not feel as he did, whether she had decided against him, no matter the longing of her heart. It was reassurance he wanted from her now, and it was reassurance she wanted to give him, but then Sister Julienne was speaking again, and her moment was lost.
"I can see that you both care for one another very much, and I can see now that this has been brewing for quite some time."
For months, Sister Bernadette thought despondently, for a year and more, since the day he first touched me and changed my life completely.
"But this is not a decision to be entered into lightly, and emotions are running high. I will ask you again, Doctor Turner, to leave. I will speak with you tomorrow. What Sister Bernadette needs from you now is privacy, and a moment to collect her thoughts."
"Sister-" Bernadette found her tongue at last, and a smile born of genuine relief bloomed across Doctor's face. He had never looked more vulnerable, more eager, more in need of a hand hold than he did in that moment, and it was only the stern expression on Sister Julienne's face that kept Bernadette from flinging her arms around him that very instant.
"No," Sister Julienne said again, giving a shake of her head to emphasize her determination on the matter. "You both need time. Doctor Turner, please don't make this more difficult than it is already."
Perhaps he had seen something in Sister Bernadette's face that gave him cause to hope, for he did not protest again.
"As you wish, Sister," he said slowly. "But I meant what I said. I will come to Nonnatus House tomorrow, and see you both then."
And then without another word he turned and left, and this time Sister Bernadette knew he would not loiter in the corridor just outside the kitchen, would not be lying in wait to hear what they had to say, to come rushing to her defense once more. Sister Julienne had spoken, and Doctor Turner was too good a man to ignore her plea for a reprieve. With his departure Sister Bernadette was left alone with her sister again, wringing her hands and staring into Julienne's dear face. Her sister's brow was furrowed with worry; there was no gladness in her, no joy at discovering that Bernadette had found love for herself, no fond congratulations dripping from her lips, and some of the wild hope that Doctor's sudden reappearance had loosed within Bernadette's chest began to fade.
"I think we ought to go home, sister," Julienne said. "And then I think we ought to have a very long talk."
24 May 1958
"Now then," Sister Julienne said as they settled into their respective chairs, one either side of the desk in her office. Outside the window the sunshine of a balmy day in late spring came streaming cheerily in, but the rays of the sun did little to warm Sister Bernadette's heart, for it was cold and full of dread. Perhaps it ought to be hope that consumed her now, given the way Doctor had kissed her, rushed to her defense, sworn to marry her, but without Doctor there beside her, without his gentle smile to calm her, Sister Bernadette's fears ran riot within her. Was she ready, truly, to turn aside from her life, to become a wife? She had never before even dreamed of such a thing; even as a young girl she'd found it hard to imagine herself dressed all in white, walking down the aisle towards a man who was waiting to subsume her entire life beneath his own. Could she really go from being a bride of Christ to being the bride of a man in a single afternoon? And oh, what must Sister Julienne think of her now?
"Are you comfortable?" Sister Julienne asked her kindly. She did everything kindly, Sister Bernadette thought miserably as she shifted in her chair; Julienne had welcomed her, sheltered her, loved her, completely and without question, for a decade now. And Bernadette had scorned her love, and turned her thoughts to another, turned away from the path of righteousness, the path she knew Sister Julienne longed for her to follow; everything is turned to madness, she thought.
"Yes," she managed to say aloud. Yes, she was comfortable enough; on their way through the convent Sister Julienne had fetched a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits, had pushed a cup into Sister Bernadette's trembling hands; she might have been terrified and full of doubts, but her physical needs had been met and she could not ask for more.
"Good," Sister Julienne said. "Now, then, why don't you start at the beginning? Tell me how all...this came to be."
It was a question asked in good faith, delivered without rancor or accusation. And Sister Bernadette knew she owed Julienne the truth; she stood on the very cusp of breaking her vows, and if she were to do such a thing there was a procedure to be observed. This first, this confession, this explanation of herself and her choices, and then would come Sister Julienne's gentle guidance. But where to begin? How had all this come to be?
"I hardly know where to begin," she said haltingly. I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation, old familiar words read long ago echoed through Sister Bernadette's mind, it is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.
"Doctor Turner has always been kind to all of us here at Nonnatus House," Sister Julienne mused. She gave every appearance of thinking aloud, but Sister Bernadette knew her sister was a clever woman indeed, and was no doubt, in her own way, trying to help guide Bernadette along in her story. "But we know very little about him, outside of work. He has not seemed to offer much of himself."
He has offered all of himself to me, Sister Bernadette thought sadly. "There was a night, several months ago now, when we lost a child. Doctor took it hard. We were speaking his office, after, and he told me -" you are the first thing that's made wonder if maybe God is real, after all - "we spoke to one another of our faith. But no, that was not the first…" she took a deep breath, tried to order her thoughts. "He gave me a little folded paper frog, at Christmas. But that was the second one, the first one he gave me months before, he'd made it for little Paul Wexler." Our little secret. "But before that, I suppose, I…"
She lost her voice altogether, then. When had it begun, the little glances between them, the quiet words, the pull she felt to be, always, near him? Was it when she'd helped Tim arrange a birthday party for him, or when she'd helped Tim buy his Christmas presents, or the first time he'd looked at her across a straining mother and murmured softly good girl in that voice that made her belly churn with a feeling she did not want to name?
"You've been growing closer for quite some time, then," Sister Julienne said decisively, as if she did not need further evidence.
"Yes, I suppose so." There were other things she ought to say, little moments she ought to mention; the cigarette they'd shared, that afternoon when he'd wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, the day they met, when his hands settled on her hips, but those secrets she kept, however selfish the keeping might have been.
"And do you...do you wish to marry him, Sister?" Julienne asked her softly then.
"I don't know," Bernadette breathed into the sudden stillness that settled over them in the wake of such a question. Did she want to hold him, to know him, to call him by his name, to wake beside him every morning? A part of her did, wanted those things more than anything else. But what if I do not please him, she thought miserably; what if we are not as well-suited as I thought, what if these feelings between us are only a momentary madness, and not enough to build a life on?
"I love him, Sister, I do," she continued, trying desperately to explain herself. "I look at him sometimes, and all I can think is how much I love him, how I want to hear him speak, how I want to be with him. But if I am with him, then I cannot be with you, and I don't know what to do." I don't know what God wants from me, and his voice has gone silent, or else I cannot hear it over my own selfish heart.
"I think that Doctor Turner was sincere, in the offer he made today, but it was made in haste. Have you thought, truly, about what it would mean to be married to him? He has a child, and that child would become your responsibility."
"Oh, but Timothy is a dear boy, Sister, and I love him already," Sister Bernadette told her earnestly. And she did love him, had found him to be a delightful child, clever and curious and as kind-hearted as his father, and she treasured every moment spent with him. "To watch him grow, to help him on his way...I think I would like that, very much."
"And would you want children of your own, someday?" Sister Julienne pressed. "You must admit, Sister, Doctor Turner is...quite a bit older than you. Setting aside for the moment the difference in your lived experiences and the possible inequality that would bring to your marriage, have you considered the fact that if you have children of your own you may be left to bring them up without him at some point in the future?"
For a moment Sister Bernadette could do no more than stare at Julienne, aghast at the very idea. No, she had not thought of such a thing, but now she could see the right of it; Doctor would be fifty-one in just under a month, and Sister Bernadette herself was only thirty-two. That was a great difference, and no man lived forever. But surely we could expect him to live another twenty years at least, she thought then, it's not as if he's on the edge of collapse. He is a healthy, vigorous man...though he does smoke too much.
"You and I know as well as anyone that there is no telling what the future might bring," Sister Bernadette said slowly. "Anyone could die, at any moment. I don't fear losing him enough to…" Enough to keep me from reaching for him now. "And he has always treated me with a great deal of respect. I've never felt the difference in our ages to be a problem."
"Then I'm not sure you've given it adequate consideration." Sister Julienne's tone was soft, but there was a rebuke buried in her words, nonetheless. "He has been married before, and has a child already. Though I would never dream of calling you naive, there are some things you simply have not experienced for yourself, and I worry that he might...be in a position to take advantage of your innocence on these matters."
The idea was couched in terms of the utmost delicacy, but Sister Bernadette could hear the insinuation hidden beneath Julienne's words. Doctor knew a great deal more than Bernadette, when it came to the subject of men and women and what they got up to in the dark, and it seemed that thought concerned Julienne a great deal. It did not concern Bernadette; if anything, it excited her - in the most terrible, shameful sort of way - for she was by nature a curious girl, and Doctor was a gentle teacher. The things she might learn at his hands, the delights he might show her...just the thought of it sent a shiver coursing down her spine.
"Doctor has never taken advantage of me in any way," she answered firmly. But God forgive me, I fear I would let him, if he dared.
Sister Julienne sighed, her expression weary, defeated, as if she felt they had gotten off track somewhere along the way.
"I can appreciate that in this moment you think this is what you want. And if you had told me that you were certain, if you did not look so scared, then I might agree to help you start the process of rescinding your vows this very moment. As it is, I cannot in good conscience counsel you to accept the Doctor's proposal just now. My advice to you, should you accept it, is that you go to the Mother House for a time, perhaps a month or so, to reflect and give the choice before you the consideration it deserves."
"A month?" Sister Bernadette repeated faintly. "But what about my work, my patients? I can't-"
"If you were to marry the Doctor, you would have to give them up anyway," Sister Julienne reminded her gently. "You need time to pray and seek God's wisdom, and we can arrange shifts to cover for you in your absence."
"But if I choose to stay with the order I won't be sent back here, will I?" Sister Bernadette asked anxiously, suddenly reminded of the terrible consequences that hung just over her head, an axe waiting to fall. "You would send me somewhere else, somewhere far away from him. I won't just be leaving for a month, I would be leaving forever."
"I'm afraid that's what it's come to, yes," Sister Julienne agreed sadly. "If you choose to remain with the order, it would be unwise, and unkind, to bring you back here, and force you and Doctor Turner to work together. And if you choose to leave us, you will no longer be a midwife. I'm afraid the circumstances have are beyond our control, Sister. You have a choice to make, but either way you will have to leave Nonnatus House."
At those words Sister Bernadette buried her face in her hands, and burst into tears.
It was later, much later, and the arrangements had all been made. A taxi would come for her first thing in the morning, and carry Sister Bernadette and her small travelling case away to Chichester. A room would be prepared for her at the Mother House, and there she would spend a month, praying for guidance. In a way she agreed with Sister Julienne, and was grateful for the reprieve; perhaps, she thought, it would be easier to hear God's voice if she were not distracted by work, by her friends, by him. Perhaps in the still serenity of the Mother House some wisdom would come to her, and grant her peace.
And yet in her heart she felt only loss, only devastation, only doubt at the thought of her impending departure. Either way you will have to leave Nonnatus House; the rules of the order, the rules of the life she'd chosen for herself, now threatened to tear her from her home, from the people she loved, her Sisters and the nurses as much as anyone else, and her heart was full of grief. For a decade she had lived in this place, cared for these people; she knew her neighbors by name, and everyone she passed had a smile and a kind word for her. How could she leave this all behind? How could she have lost everything, when she had done no more than accept the attentions of a kind man?
Sleep would not come to her that night, and she drifted, restless and lost, through the halls of this place that had been her home for ten long, beautiful years. She loved Nonnatus House, however much it might have fallen into disrepair; she loved the cranky old boiler and the moldering cloisters, the crumbling foundations and the soaring walls. This was her home, and as she wandered through it she whispered her goodbyes, and wept.
But Sister Bernadette was not the only one who could not sleep on this particular night; she heard the soft sound of a wireless playing, floating on the air as if conjured from a dream, and she followed the sound of it until at last her feet led her to the kitchen, where Trixie sat listening to the radio, and painting her nails.
"Oh!" Trixie cried, looking up sharply as the sound of Sister Bernadette's footfalls announced her arrival. "You gave me such a fright, Sister. I thought I'd seen a ghost! Oh, and I'm sorry, I know it's the Great Silence, I didn't mean-"
"It's all right, Trixie," Bernadette told her with a sad little smile. "I won't tell, if you don't.'
"It'll be our little secret," Trixie said winsomely, but then she seemed to take a closer look at Sister Bernadette, and her smile was replaced by a frown in a moment. "Forgive me, Sister, but I think you're the one who looks like you've seen a ghost. Is everything all right?"
The question was asked with such gentle concern that Sister Bernadette felt she must answer it truthfully, but when she opened her mouth to speak the only sound that escaped her was a great, wracking sob. In the next moment the tears began to flow down her cheeks, and she slowly crossed the room, sank into a chair at the table next to Trixie and let the weeping take her. She wept for the loss of her home, for the thought of a month spent without Doctor there to make her smile, wept for the grief she knew he would feel when he learned of her departure, wept for every fear and every hope and every sorrow she harbored in her heart. But Trixie did not leave her to grieve in solitude, for the girl slung a comforting arm around her shaking shoulders, and held her tight in silence until at last Bernadette calmed enough to speak.
"Thank you," she breathed. She was grateful, more grateful than words could say, for the gentle touch of a friend, for the embrace of another living soul, in that moment when she felt more lonesome than she could recall having ever felt in her entire life.
"Will you tell me what's wrong?" Trixie asked her in a soft voice heavy with the worry of one friend for another.
"If you promise not to tell anyone," Bernadette answered. "Please, Trixie, you must promise."
"I promise," the girl answered at once. "I can keep a secret."
And somehow Bernadette did not doubt her; sometimes she looked at Trixie, with her perfect manicure and her immaculately curled hair, and wondered if perhaps that girl harbored more secrets than all the rest of them put together.
"I'm going away in the morning," she said, gasping a little around the last of her tears. "And I don't know when, or if I'm coming back. But if I do come back to Poplar, I shan't be Sister Bernadette any more."
"You're thinking of giving up your vows?" Trixie sounded shocked at the very idea; there was no judgement in her, only genuine surprise. "Oh, you poor thing, you must be feeling wretched."
"I am," Sister Bernadette sighed, scrubbing her hands across her cheeks. Wretched, yes that was the only word she felt to adequately describe her current state of mind.
"Has something happened?"
Bernadette lifted her head, and found Trixie watching her anxiously, as if she feared that something dreadful must have occurred, to make Sister Bernadette consider abandoning the religious life. And Bernadette could not stand that, could not allow her to think such a thing, for whatever her love for the Doctor might be, it was not, nor could she ever imagine it to be, dreadful.
"I...I have had reason to consider, in the last few months, whether there are other things that I might want, things I can't have in the religious life."
"Things like a husband?" Trixie asked, and Bernadette could only stare at her in shock, entirely thrown onto the back foot by how quickly Trixie had read the situation. "Like Doctor Turner?"
"How on earth did you know?" Before now Bernadette had thought that she and Doctor had been quite discreet about the whole thing; Sister Julienne certainly had never dreamed that there was anything more than professional courtesy between them. How could Trixie, who despite being a delightful girl was not among Sister Bernadette's closest confidants, have seen what Julienne could not?
"The funny thing about me is, some people are so determined to underestimate me," Trixie sniffed. "Sometimes, they forget I'm in the room at all. I was there, that night when we decided to throw a birthday party for Doctor, and you insisted you be the one to pick out his present. And I know you helped Timothy shop for him at Christmas. And I was there when Mrs. Harbison had her little one, the premature baby, and Doctor said something to you that made you look at him like...oh, like something from a film." There's a delicacy about small things that makes them precious, that's what he'd told her, and perhaps that had been the moment when he'd won her heart, well and truly, and wasn't it strange, but until now she had not even considered the fact that Trixie had been in the room that day. "And then the Carter twins, when Meg hit you, I thought he was going to-"
"All right," Sister Bernadette said in defeat, "all right."
"It's just...it's so plain that he cares for you, and Tim clearly adores you, and if you love them both then I say...well, I say it's wonderful, Sister Bernadette. You deserve some happiness."
It was easy for Trixie to say such a thing, Sister Bernadette thought; Trixie was young, and her head was full of dreams of romance, of adventure, a longing for a strong man to come and whisk her away into a life more beautiful than the one she knew. For perhaps the very first time Sister Bernadette envied Trixie her optimism, her sense of hopeless romanticism, the dreams that she could chase so freely, and without care.
"But at what cost?" Sister Bernadette said sadly. "To leave the order is...I would not be the first, but it is not an easy choice." And if it is the wrong one, if it is not what God wants of me, my very soul may hang in the balance. I may trade the life God set aside for me for a road that leads to darkness, leads to a place where all happiness whither, and only sorrow grows.
"There is nothing shameful about love," Trixie said, with all the certainty of youth. "I thought God wanted us to love one another. I think he ought to be happy for you, finding someone to love."
"I'm meant to love Him," Sister Bernadette pointed out. I'm meant to love Him above all others, but how can I, when He would keep me from this man who gives me so much hope, when He would send me from my home, when He would demand that I have no family of my own?
"But surely you love Doctor, too?"
"I do," Sister Bernadette agreed sadly. "And I don't know which of them I love most."
"And so you're just going to leave?" Trixie seemed put out at the very idea.
"For a little while," Sister Bernadette answered, trying to reassure herself as much as her young friend. "So that I can pray, and come to a decision."
"We will miss you, so much," Trixie said, reaching for her hand. "But I think I speak for all of us when I say we want you to be happy. I won't promise to pray for you, I think we both know I'm not any good at that, but I will think of you often, and I hope you come back to us. I'd love to know what color your hair really is."
Those last words were delivered in a teasing voice, a little quip no doubt intended to lighten the mood - for that was what Trixie did best, defused arguments and alleviated tensions and brought smiles to everyone else's faces, if not always her own - and Sister Bernadette could not help but laugh, a bit wetly.
"What a dear girl you are," she said, giving Trixie's hand a little squeeze. "I shall miss you, very much."
"Then come back to us," Trixie said firmly. "Come home, and be happy."
And perhaps it was strange, but in that moment Sister Bernadette felt hope overtake doubt, if only for an instant. Yes, she was going away, and yes, her entire life was set to change, but if she made her way back to Poplar, with her head uncovered and no habit in sight, her friends would still be here, and though she would no longer live as one of them, perhaps it would be enough to simply know that they were near, and that they loved her.
25 May 1958
All through that long night, Patrick slept not a wink. Sister Julienne had whisked Sister Bernadette away from the fete, and he had not seen either of them since; he'd done his best, during the daylight hours, to focus on his son, to be a father and not a man consumed with worry over the longings of his own heart, but even Tim had noticed that something was off about him. Is something wrong? Did something happen? Tim had asked him as at last they drove away from the parish hall, but Patrick could not even begin to formulate an answer to those questions. Yes, something had happened, and yes, something was wrong, or perhaps it was not wrong at all, perhaps he's set his feet upon precisely the right path and a life of joy waited for him, but he did not know, and he found it difficult to hope when he could not see Sister Bernadette's face.
And so he kept his own counsel, all through dinner, through the quiet of the flat in the evening, through the dark, silent hours of the night.
There is nothing I want more than to marry her. Those words were true, though Patrick had not realized it until the moment was upon him. He wanted to marry her, wanted to learn her true name, wanted to hold her hand, wanted to run his fingers through her hair, wanted to see her smiling at him from across the dinner table. He wanted to fall asleep with his arms around her, and he wanted her standing beside him at the seaside, watching Tim at play. He wanted to protect her, to love her, to make her laugh, to brush her tears from her cheeks and feel no shame. He wanted her with him, always, wanted to share himself with her and to accept whatever else she offered him in kind. He wanted her, with a fierceness that shocked him.
Perhaps he should have been more circumspect; perhaps he should have asked her first, before declaring his intentions so boldly to Sister Julienne. He almost certainly should have spoken to Timothy; after all, the flat was Tim's home, too, and Patrick did not want his son to feel abandoned, forgotten, pushed aside in favor of a new dream. Sister Bernadette would love him, Patrick knew, would be the most devoted stepmother any child could ask for, but still to bring her home would be to change Tim's life forever, and he wanted his son to know that no matter what happened, no matter how things might change, his father loved him. These conversations he should have had before making any declarations; he should have purchased a ring, and put some thought into marshaling his arguments in favor of marriage, but the untimely arrival of Sister Julienne and everything that had happened after had sent the words tumbling out of his mouth in a rush.
I have ached in ways I did not know it was possible to ache.
Those words from Sister Bernadette's lips had loosed a riot of emotions within him, had sent him running back into the kitchen hellbent on scooping her into his arms and taking her home with him. She had ached, and in that word he felt the echo of every emotion, every longing that coursed through his own soul. His attentions had not displeased or frightened her; she cared for him, as he had so desperately hoped she might. But more than that, she ached, she wanted, as he did; his blood had turned to fire in veins at the very thought of what she longed for, how she might ache for him, the way her body might tremble and glisten beneath his own, as hungry for him as he was for her, the way they might come together and in the joining of their hearts build a new life for themselves, more beautiful and more precious than anything he'd previously imagined. Just knowing that she was as deeply moved by their connection as was he had made him bold, but Sister Julienne had put a stop to his recklessness, and sent him away before Sister Bernadette had a chance to answer.
And so he had been left, tossing and turning, his thoughts consumed by her. Surely it was enough now, he told himself; she had confessed her feelings for him, and he had done the same, had offered her a chance for a different life and the protection of his home, his name, his love. He had done all that he could do; the choice would be entirely her own. But what would she choose? Would Sister Julienne counsel her to remember her vows, to put God above all earthly desires? Would such counsel fall on deaf ears, now that his beloved knew the steadfast resolve of his own heart? Could he really be so bold, so audacious, as to wrest that girl from the clutches of God himself? Could he really be so foolish as to believe that a beautiful young woman with a heart so good and so true as Sister Bernadette's would be content in a marriage to a man nearly eighteen years her senior, with another woman's child to raise?
At last the sun rose, and Patrick with it. He had not slept, and he did not think he would again, not until he'd seen Sister Bernadette for himself. When Sister Julienne sent him away he had left with a promise that he would see them both tomorrow, and now tomorrow had come. He could hardly go rushing off to Nonnatus House at first light; the Sisters no doubt had certain observances that must be kept on Sunday mornings, and he did not want to appear more presumptuous than he had done already. Eight o'clock, he decided, would be a perfectly acceptable time to make his appearance and plead his case to the sisters; the question remained, however, how he ought to fill the intervening hours.
A shower first, he decided, and then breakfast. He dressed in one of his best black suits, and brushed the dust from his hat with a careful hand. Timothy was still in bed; as the lad grew older he seemed to enjoy a lie in more and more, and Patrick found himself grateful for that particular trait today. He did intend to discuss the possibility of his impending marriage with Tim, but he desperately needed to see Sister Bernadette first; he did not want to bring Timothy into the situation until he knew for certain whether the little nun intended to take his hand. The quiet now was a respite for him, a chance to gather his thoughts, to try to decide what he might say when he did arrive at Nonnatus. How could he possibly hope to explain himself, his feelings? How could he convince those two ladies that his intentions were good, that he could provide a home for Sister Bernadette, a future for her that was full of love? What would she need to hear from him, to set her fears at rest? And what would he do, should she remain firm in dedication to her vows?
There were so many questions rocketing around inside his mind he could hardly breathe, but he knew he would find no answers alone in his little flat. And so he wrote a note for Tim, and stepped out the door, making his way towards the car, towards Nonnatus House, towards the future. The streets were deserted, the air warm and redolent with the warm growth of spring, but Patrick paid very little attention to his surroundings; his thoughts were consumed with her, the vision of her bright blue eyes, her tremulous smile, her soft hand enfolded in his own. His very soul was set only on her, reaching her, seeing her, telling her how he loved her; she was everything to him, in that moment.
And perhaps it was down to his distraction that he did not immediately understand what he saw when he pulled up in front of Nonnatus House. There was a black hire car parked out front, and the nuns were gathered round it. As Patrick drew his own car to a stop and clambered out he could hardly make out which lady was which; they were a sea of navy habits, white whimples floating on top like seafoam, all of them shifting and merging into one being, the core of Nonnatus House, its beating heart. The nurses were not with them, and if he'd taken a moment to consider the scene before him perhaps he might have understood what that meant, and feared it. As it was, however, he thought only that perhaps Sister Bernadette was with them, and rushed across the pavement, eager to see her.
And she was there, of course, just there; he saw her, her head turning as she slowly slid into the passenger's seat of the car. Her whimple disappeared from view and reality came crashing in on Patrick; in the next moment, he began to run.
"No!" he called out sharply, and the nuns turned to stare at him, a flock of frightened pigeons. "Sister Bernadette, please!"
Sister Evangelina closed the car door sharply, and hid Patrick's beloved from view. She was scowling, and Sister Monica Joan was weeping. Sister Julienne stepped out to intercept him, holding him at bay just long enough to stop him reaching the car before it pulled slowly away, carrying all his hopes with it. Through the back glass he could see her, Sister Bernadette, watching him, but the glass was dusty and she was far away, and he could not make out her expression. He could only see her, small and growing smaller by the second, fading from view.
"Why don't you come inside, Doctor?" Sister Julienne said to him, and it was only the warmth of her voice, her ever-present compassion, that kept Patrick from shouting at her. Numbly he followed her into the convent, his heart shredding itself to pieces in his chest. She had left; Sister Bernadette had left him, had never given him the chance to plead his case, to tell her how earnestly he loved her, to show her the promise of a future together. She was gone, now; he would not see her gentle smile again, would not hear her soft lilting voice, would not ever hold her in his arms. He had been rash, the day before, had overstepped the mark, and in his reckless haste to have her he had lost her, and he grieved that loss, felt the shattering emptiness echoing inside him like a well of loneliness from which no joy could ever spring.
Sister Bernadette had left, but Sister Julienne was not through with him. Perhaps she would have some explanation, or perhaps she meant only to scold him, but Patrick did not care much, either way. He would hear her, and he would go home, and then he would try to find some way to carry on, without the hope and the joy that Bernadette had brought to him. It was a grim prospect, a future without her.
"Please, have a seat," Sister Julienne said, and so he did, sank himself into the chair across the desk from her. He sprawled in that chair, his hand over his mouth, trying to order his thoughts, trying to keep his broken heart from spilling out all of his anger, his guilt, his grief.
"There are several things I think we ought to discuss," she continued, "but I think this is the most important. Sister Bernadette's absence is not intended to be permanent."
It was strange, really, how quickly, how readily his heart could spin from one emotion to the next. From joy to desolation, from despair to wild hope; Sister Bernadette had been taken from him, but perhaps she might one day be returned to him, and then, oh, then-
"You have placed her in a difficult position. She has not ever considered the possibility of marriage, and now she will be forced to choose between marriage to you and the sacred vows she has made to God."
Perhaps Sister Julienne intended those words as chastisement, but to Patrick they were only a blessing. If Bernadette's choice had not yet been made, then that meant there was every possibility she might still choose him, and he was glad of it.
"She has gone to the Mother House for a time, to reflect on the choice before her."
"Might I be permitted to see her there, Sister?" Patrick asked, leaning forward in his chair. "I had hoped that I might have a chance to speak with her." I had hoped you wouldn't ship her off first thing in the morning, and keep her from me.
"You have said all you needed to, Doctor Turner," Julienne told him. "Sister Bernadette knows you care for her, and she knows the offer you would make. It is time for her to consider what she most wants for her future."
Patrick would never dream of calling Sister Julienne naive. She was experienced, and intelligent, had seen all the worst life had to offer in the slums of Poplar and never flinched, no matter how grave or unpleasant the circumstances before her might be. She had seen every possible consequence of human failings, knew every shape that love and hate might take in a life. But she was, sometimes, hindered by a certain black and white way of thinking; she was, sometimes, too far removed from the complexities of the people she served.
"I think it might be easier for Sister Bernadette to make a decision if she understood exactly what I'm offering her," Patrick said, trying not to snap. "How can she choose when she doesn't know how I...what I…" he floundered a bit, realizing halfway through his sentence that there were some things a man ought not say to a nun.
"She knows," Sister Julienne said simply. "The Mother House is no place for a man. Sister Bernadette will come to her decision there, and you will be informed in due course. In the meantime, Doctor, I'm afraid I do have some questions for you."
"Of course, Sister." Patrick did not like the sound of that, not one little bit. They had taken Sister Bernadette from him, had neatly denied him an opportunity to see her, to speak to her, and now Sister Julienne was watching him carefully, as if she did not entirely trust him. That simply wouldn't do; he had always enjoyed a positive working relationship with Nonnatus House, and their continued camaraderie would be vital to the success of their patients. It would not do for them to fall out with one another now.
"You are often alone with nurses and midwives, often after hours, and now it has been revealed that you have been...taking liberties with one of our young ladies. I need to know, Doctor, whether the kiss I saw yesterday was the only time, or-"
"Sister Julienne, I promise you, I have never, I would never," the words came tumbling out of him as he stared at her, aghast at the very idea. "The nurses are...they're my colleagues, Sister, but they're hardly more than girls. They always have been, and always will be, safe in my company."
"I would like to believe that what you say is true. Before now I have seen no reason not to trust you. But after yesterday-"
"Sister Bernadette is different," he said, somewhat desperately. "You must understand, I never...I didn't mean...I love her, most completely, and I would have never dared to do such a thing if I did not believe she felt the same way for me."
A silence fell, in the wake of his words; Sister Julienne steepled her fingers together on the desktop, watching him with those eyes so warm, so thoughtful, so full of compassion. It had never before occurred to him that his behavior might damage his reputation, that she might think him the sort of man who would take advantage of the young ladies who worked alongside him. The nurses were dear to him, as if they were his sisters or his own daughters, young ladies who needed guidance and protection and nothing more from him. Not a one of them had ever turned his head, nor would they ever, and he was devastated to think that Sister Julienne could imagine him so cruel.
"Why her?" she asked him softly. The question lit a simmering fire of anger low in his belly, but he turned it over in his mind, trying to determine whether a trap had been laid for him. What was the purpose of asking such a question, he wondered now; what was it Sister Julienne really wanted to know, and how could he answer without damning himself?
"She is a nun, and you knew that meant she could never return your affection. Why did you still pursue her, then?"
It was a fair question; why had he done it, let himself fall so completely in love with exactly the wrong woman? Why had he let his heart run away from him, why had his eye wandered to her, and not to any one of the number of unattached and more age-appropriate ladies he had encountered since returning to Poplar? Why her?
"It wasn't intentional, I can assure you," he said, scrubbing a weary hand over his face. "In the beginning, I thought of her only as a friend. She's calm, and thoughtful, and I could actually talk to her, properly." Not like the nurses, who were as foreign to him in experience and interests as if they had come from another planet, or the older nuns who were distant and disapproving. "I grew to enjoy our conversations, I suppose. And over time, I began to realize...she's a marvel, Sister." A marvel, and marvelous, beautiful and brilliant and clever and so bloody brave, Sister Bernadette was quite the most wonderful woman he could recall having ever met - aside from Marianne, of course, but Marianne was gone, now, and it was only Sister Bernadette's gentle smile that made her absence more tolerable. Sister Julienne wanted to hear from him that he had not gone chasing after one of the midwives because he was looking for a bit of fun; she wanted to hear the truth of him, and he intended to give it to her.
"She...she lets me have my head, Sister," he continued. "You know what I'm like, always late, always rushing from one thing to the next. I've been told that I can be...excitable." Other words had been used, of course, but that was the least damning. "And she doesn't try to hold me back or - or - or change me," he stumbled over his words, pouring out of him with heated sincerity now. "She just tries to help. She steps in and she takes things on so I can do what needs doing. She… she fills the empty spaces, Sister. The gaps I thought would never be filled again. And when she smiles, I feel as if I would do anything she asked of me."
I would give her the world, and everything in it, and all of myself. I love her. I do.
Across the desk Sister Julienne was watching him; her expression was sad, but there was understanding in her; somehow, Patrick did not think her sorrow came from her mistrust of him, but rather from the knowledge that every word he'd said was true, and that he sat before her intent on stealing away her favorite sister, that young woman Sister Julienne loved as if she were her own child.
"You make a compelling case for yourself, Doctor," she said gently. "I see no reason not to trust you, but I must warn you that your behavior will be under intense scrutiny in the coming days. I expect Sister Bernadette to be gone at least a month, but as soon as she has reached a decision I will inform you at once."
Sister Julienne rose to her feet, no doubt intent on dismissing him, but Patrick was not yet ready to leave. He had seen Sister Bernadette whisked away from him like a criminal, had his reputation called into question, and was now being completely left in the dark as regarded his own future, and he could not leave before making one final plea to Sister Julienne.
"It's my future, too," he told her. "Surely there must be some way for me to speak to her."
"Perhaps you could write her a letter," Sister Julienne said blandly. "But for now it will be best if you don't see her."
Best for whom? Patrick wondered.
"You can't keep me away from her forever," he answered. "Forgive me, sister, but I will follow that girl to the gates of hell itself if I have to."
For a moment Sister Julienne was quiet, watching him thoughtfully, and then she spoke.
"I believe you would," she said.
27 May 1958
Dear Sister Bernadette.
Patrick stared at the words for a moment, then sighed and crumpled up the page, tossing it in the general direction of the bin. That would not do; he could hardly bring himself to call her Sister Bernadette, not now when he yearned with every piece of himself to learn her real name, when he knew he true self - not Bernadette, but the girl she had been before her vows - still lived within her heart, yearning for him. Bernadette was too distant, Sister too aloof; his feelings for her were hardly fraternal. And taken altogether the salutation - dear Sister Bernadette - was far too generic, too formal. It did not accurately convey the depth of his need, his concern, the way his heart was shredding itself to pieces in his chest at her absence.
Perhaps you could write her a letter, Sister Julienne had told him, and though the suggestion had been casually made he had taken hold of the idea with both hands. The mother house is no place for a man - he was certain that if he clambered behind the wheel of his car and drove there he would be turned away at the door, and he wanted to spare her such an embarrassing scene. Likewise he could hardly ring her on the telephone; he didn't know the number, and he doubted he'd be put through to her in any case. His only recourse, then, was paper and pen. If he were to tell her of his heart, to tell her of his dreams, to plead his case, he must do so in writing, and send the letter off, borne on wings of hope.
It had taken him two days to find the time in which to write; a GP's work was never through, and a father was always on call. In two days there had been three deliveries requiring his attention, one unseasonal outbreak of bronchitis, and quite a bit of maths to practice with Timothy. Every hour of the day had been accounted for, and he had tried his best to maintain a pleasant demeanor, to smile at his son and be cordial with the midwives and keep his inner turmoil concealed, but he feared he was failing in that regard. Sorrow plagued him; he had always felt the bite of the black dog more strongly than most, and though he tried to keep his despondency at bay, tried to pour his energy into his patients and his son, his resolve was flagging. His smile was slipping, and the cheerful words of a happy man died on his lips. He was lost, and terribly worried; he had no way of knowing what the future held, what she was thinking, whether she would ever come back to him, and in the absence of certainty doubt festered like an open wound.
And so he had retreated here, to his office in the surgery, late on a Tuesday evening after Timothy had gone to bed. He was certain he would regret the lost sleep come morning, but he could not rest until this letter was written, until he knew that he had done all he could to reach his beloved, and set things to rights between them.
With that in mind then he reached for a fresh scrap of paper. If he could only make a start he was certain that the words would come to him, but the correct greeting eluded him. How should he speak to her, this woman he adored, this woman he had kissed, this woman whose whole life had been turned upside down for his sake? Should he be conciliatory, apologetic, desperate, measured? Would an outpouring of vulnerable emotion sway her, or alarm her? And what should he call her?
My darling, he wrote, but he had no sooner finished scribbling the g than he crumpled that page and tossed it away as well. He wanted her to be his darling, his, and precious, but it felt presumptuous, to say the least, when he did not know whether she intended to accept him. It would not do, to lay claim to a love that had not yet been offered him.
Dearest one, he wrote on a third page, but that one too he crumpled and threw away. She was dear to him, dearer than most, but again the words seemed too affectionate, too grasping.
For God's sake, man, he thought glumly, just make a start. It doesn't matter, really.
For a moment he sat still and staring at the fourth blank page. Whatever you write, leave it this time, he told himself. Otherwise you'll never write the bloody thing.
Taking a deep breath, then, he summoned his courage, and began again.
My dear friend, he wrote. I regret the circumstances of our parting.
That was putting mildly, he knew. The memory of her face, pale and distant, obscured by the dusty glass of the hire car window, haunted him. He had been so sure that he had time enough to plead his case and change both of their lives for the better, but she had been snatched from him, cruelly and much too soon.
I very much wanted to speak with you.
That was true; he had wanted, very much, to hear her voice, to hold her hand, to tell her how utterly she had enraptured him, how certain - completely certain - he was that they would make a good match for one another, that he could make her happy. He would treasure her, and not restrict her; together they could laugh, and face every obstacle life threw at them as one, united and whole. His heart cried out for her, wanting to bring her joy, to see her smile, to see her grow unfettered by the restraints of the religious life. There was so much love in her heart, and he wanted to help that love to blossom, and not whither. Besides, she was passionate, and clever, and stubborn and strong and brave; she was so many things, but the Order did not want her individual spirit, her aptitude for leadership. The Order wanted her docile, and obedient, while Patrick wanted to see her wild, and free.
I know it may seem as if my proposal was made in haste.
It had been, he knew it had been, but -
But I need you to know that it is a matter that has much been on my mind of late. You have been much on my mind.
It was too soon, he knew, to tell her the course his thoughts had run, how his mind had lingered on the memory of her hips beneath his hands, the softness of her in his arms, the delicate line of her fingers and the brilliance of her eyes and the warmth of her lips. It was too soon to tell her how he dreamed of her lying next to him, smiling at him across the breakfast table, how he believed most fervently that they could make a home together. He would approach the subject delicately, he decided, in the hopes that she would answer this letter, and he might send another, and in time they might both of them reveal the extent of their desires to one another.
He stopped. She had what? Captivated him? Ensnared him? Reminded him what it was, to love a living woman, one who could return his affections?
You have brought hope to my life, he wrote, and joy. I must confess that for these last few months, I have looked forward to seeing you as the highlight of my day. What I wanted to tell you, that day you left me
Perhaps it was cruel, to say you left me, but the leaving was cruel, and he felt himself abandoned.
That day you left me, was that to me, you are lovely. Utterly, completely lovely.
There were other words he could have used - beautiful, mesmerizing, enchanting. But she was more than any one word could convey; to his mind, she had become everything. He valued her opinion, her experience, her skill, relished her wit and her tender affections. Patrick knew what it was, to be married, knew the ups and downs that came from sharing one's life with another. It was not all kisses and tumbles beneath the bedsheets; there were bills to be paid and meals to make, Cubs meetings and family Christmases, the little battles over laundry and dishes and the hours he worked. She was a midwife, a nurse down to her very bones, and would not be content with the humble domestic work of marriage; she would need occupation, and engagement, and he wanted to give that to her, wanted her to become his partner in every way. When he'd opened the maternity home Sister Evangelina had rolled her eyes, but she had supported him, encouraged him, made suggestions regarding the facilities and structure of care. She could be his partner, could share in his work, the way she always had done. Just having her near made him a better doctor, a better man, and he wanted her with him, always.
Your heart, your smile, your gentle voice; you have reached to the very heart of me, and claimed me for your own. That is what I want to tell you, what I need you to know. Whatever choice you make I shall respect it, but I am yours, wholly and without reservation. Should you choose to come back to me, I will be waiting. And I will love you, with all that I have, and I will give you a home, and my heart, to do with as you will.
Would it be enough? He wondered. He knew what he stood to gain, should she take his hand. A lover, a companion, a friend, a workmate; she could be everything to him, and her support would make him glad. But what could he give to her that she did not have already? Would the love of one man satisfy her, when she had previously enjoyed the love of God himself, and of her sisters? Did she want to become a mother, and did she want the children she bore to be his? What did she dream of, when she looked to the future? And could he provide it?
Patrick did not know, but he rather hoped this letter might be a start, a means of opening the conversation, and allowing her to tell him outright what it was she wanted.
I think there can be no doubt, now, of my affection for you.
No, the moment he kissed her hand he'd revealed himself, and there would be no turning back now, not for him.
I am less sure of what it is that you want. Please, write to me. I am in agony - he scribbled through the words and started again. I am worried that you do not feel the same, or that I have in some way offended you. Please, tell me if I have. I want only to know what would make you happy, and to give it to you.
He leaned back in his chair, reading over the words he'd written. It was not a terribly long letter, but he intended it to be the first of many, and as he poured over the page he decided it was enough, for now. He had made a start; come morning he would send the letter off in the post, and then wait, perishing with want of her, until she saw fit to reply to him.
I remain yours, faithfully, he wrote. Patrick.
It seemed monumental, somehow, to sign his name at the bottom of the page. His true name, a name he had never given her, a name he had never heard from her lips. Not Doctor, not now; that would not do. He was not a doctor writing to a colleague; he was a man, crying out for the woman he loved, and he felt she deserved this much from him now. Satisfied with the contents of the letter and hopeful about how it might be received he folded it up, and tucked it into an envelope on which he'd scrawled the address of the mother house. With that task complete he felt weariness overcome him, and trudged back upstairs to his flat, to his bed, thinking thoughts of her.
1 June 1958
In Sister Bernadette's memories, the Mother House was always a warm, happy place. Full of the laughter of children - and sometimes their tears, though such sorrow was always met with compassion - and the soft voices of the sisters who loved them, the Mother House burst with life. There were songs to be sung, prayers to be prayed, meals to be made. The work was never ceasing, in the Mother House; there were sisters there who managed the finances of the entire Order, who assisted with the distribution of donations, and the placement of their fellows throughout all of the Orders' houses. There were novices, bright and hopeful - though their number was smaller now than it had been when Sister Bernadette first came to this place with a heart full of dreams - and the mentors who taught them with patience and affection. There were older sisters, too, beyond the point of working for their cause but not beyond the point of care, tended reverently and gently by younger hands. The Mother House was a place of joy, in her memories.
But it seemed less so, now. Oh, on the whole it had not changed so very much; the work was the same, and the spirit of the women who undertook it was likewise as cheerful and full of devotion as it had ever been. Some of the faces were unfamiliar to her, but there were more old friends in that place than new acquaintances. It should have felt welcoming, and homey, and perhaps it would have done if Sister Bernadette had been sent there to work, to become a part of the vibrant fabric of life that wove through that place, but she had been sent to Chichester for an unusual purpose, and she was set aside on account of that purpose.
When she'd first arrived she had been whisked straight into a meeting with Mother Jesu Emmanuel. Her bag had been taken from her by a quiet, smiling stranger, and she had been entered Mother Jesu's office feeling small, and rather out of place. So much time had passed, since last she'd stood in this place, and it was thoughts of leaving the Order that had brought her back here; she had felt herself half a traitor already, though she still wore the habit and carried the name Bernadette. If Mother Jesu felt at all betrayed by her lack of faith she gave no sign, only treated her younger sister with kindness, as she always had done.
But Sister Bernadette had been shocked to learn that while she remained in Chichester she would essentially be kept in seclusion, the better to devote herself to prayer and communion with God.
This is not a punishment, Mother Jesu had told her gently when she protested. You are not in exile here. You are free to come and go as you wish, and to take your evening meal with us. However, you must not forget the purpose of your visit. You are here to seek guidance from the Almighty.
I had hoped to seek guidance from my sisters, as well, Sister Bernadette had told her. She didn't relish the thought of spending a month almost entirely alone, kneeling in the chapel or sitting in the austere room that had been set aside for her, with nothing but her Bible and her prayers for company. Perhaps that, more than anything, was a sign of just how far from her path she had drifted, that the presence of God was no longer enough to satisfy her. The very thought was almost blasphemous, and she hated herself for it.
A choice lies before you, Mother Jesu had told her. It is not my choice to make, nor is it truly yours. The Lord knows what path he has set aside for you. You must take this time to sit quietly, and listen for his counsel. I fear that were I to offer my own opinion, the voice of the Lord might be drowned out by my own. Take heart, sister. The Lord knows what he intends for you, and in time I believe you will learn his will.
And so Sister Bernadette was reduced to this, dividing her time between her room and the chapel, except for the hour each day she spent walking the grounds. The world shrunk in around her, and silence echoed in her ears. She had hoped that away from the clamor of Poplar, away from the never-ending demands of her patients, the noise of the docks, the thousand tasks that filled every moment, she might find peace and restoration. And yet she did not feel relaxed, or at ease; her hands itched for want of occupation, and her mind drifted often from her prayers, visiting memories of those she loved and wondering what lay in store for her future. Sister Bernadette did not feel as if she were approaching a revelation; she felt instead as if she were waiting for one to come to her, and she was less certain by the day that it was on its way.
With all her heart Sister Bernadette wished the choice before her was an easy one. It had been easy, to choose to move to London; both her parents were gone, she'd come into a modest inheritance, and there were more opportunities for her in London than in her provincial town. Nursing, too, had been an easy choice - there was a dire need for nurses, at that time, and the work was important, and it brought her joy and fulfillment. Even joining the Order had been an easy choice at the time; she had been lonesome and dissatisfied with her life, and the Order offered her peace, security, and the love of a community. At the time it had not seemed such a sacrifice, to abandon thoughts of marriage and power over her own destiny. Her faith was great, and the love of the Lord was vast and all-encompassing. The Order promised stability at a time when nothing was certain, and as for marriage...well, it wasn't as if there had been a line of suitors knocking on her door. She'd never been terribly comfortable around men, and they had not often sought her out, and it had been almost a relief, to set aside worries about how she might ever find love, and whether that love would sustain her in the future. She'd had no need of a husband, not when the Lord provided all, and she had been happy.
She had been happy. But she was no longer; she could not deny it. Of late the lack of freedom afforded her, the lack of control over her own direction, had become burdensome. And loneliness had crept into her heart, when she slid beneath the sheets of her little bed in Nonnatus House alone. Thoughts of him filled her mind in quiet moments, and her heart ached with longing for -
For what, exactly? For companionship, for affection, for a hand to hold, a soul to share her life with. He had come bursting into her life, and torn all her previous assumptions about herself to pieces. She had thought she would be content, never knowing the touch of a man, but now he had held her for the briefest of moments and set her mind to racing with thoughts of what it might feel like to share all of herself with another in that way, in the way she was never supposed to consider. She had grown to love his boy, and in spending time with Timothy she had found a hole in her heart, a longing for a child of her own that could not be sated while she remained so distant from the warmth of a family home. There was so much want in her now, where before there had been only satisfaction, and the want grew stronger by the day.
To join the religious life was to eschew all thoughts of want; oh, it was not that the wanting ceased, but that the Sisters chose their devotion, their duty, their God, over their own desires. There was beauty in the denial of the self, grace in the sacrifice of one's personal longings in the name of caring for others. It was a high calling, a noble calling, a difficult path to tread but one full of rewards. Every one of her sisters had known want, and every one of them had risen above it. Sister Bernadette wanted to draw comfort and strength from their example, did not want to be sullen and petulant and demand her own way like a willful child, but she felt so drawn to Doctor, felt such a connection to him, that she could not turn away from thoughts of him entirely.
A week had passed, since she'd come to the Mother House, but no certainty had come to her. At her wit's end, then, she sat down at the small table in the corner of her room, and laid out a piece of paper in front of her. Her prayers had not been answered, and Mother Jesu had offered no counsel, and so she felt she had no choice but to seek it out for herself.
Dear Doctor Turner, she wrote. She did not know his Christian name, and that grieved her; their fates were intertwined, now, and yet she could not call him by his name, nor could he call her by her own. There was so very much they did not know about one another, and that worried her, too; how could she consider turning aside from the Order for the sake of this man, when she did not even know his name?
She stopped. What did she wish? That he would come for her, like the hero in a film, storm through the doors and wrap her in his arms and in that display of reckless affection prove the depth of his regard for her, prove that their souls were meant to be joined, forever? Or that he had not proposed at all, that he had not kissed her, that they could have continued their dance of flirtation and retreat, longing and yet not giving voice to their base desires?
I wish I'd had the chance to speak to you before I left.
And she did wish it; if only she could have seen him, spoken to him in private, perhaps he would have been able to assure her that he did wish to marry her, that he had not rushed into his proposal only out of a desire to protect her reputation. She wished, most fervently, that they could have had one serious conversation about the future, about what sort of marriage they might have, how they might build a life together; if only she knew what sort of wife he expected her to be, perhaps it might have been easier to commit to him, or not, as the case may be.
Ah yes, the want. She wanted to kiss him, to hold him, to feel his arms around her, wanted to know what it was, to love a man with her whole heart. She wanted him to be the man she thought he was, the sort of husband who would build his wife up, and not grind her beneath his heel. But she wanted the Order, too, wanted the love of God and the certain security of her soul, the knowledge that she had not defied the Almighty and chosen a path of darkness for herself. But Doctor Turner had no faith of his own, and she knew he could offer her no reassurances on that score.
You, she thought. I want you, but I want Him, too, and I don't know if there's room enough in my heart for both of you.
Sighing, then, she crumpled up the page and threw it away. Doctor Turner could tell her of his love, his devotion, could show her the pleasures a man might show a woman, but he could not tell her if choosing him would be to step beyond the mercy of God.
And so she pulled out a second page, and began to write again.
Dear Sister Julienne, the letter began. I am well, and the Mother House is a comfort to me.
And so she wrote, told her dear sister of the fears that plagued her, the answers that eluded her, the doubt that would not leave her be. She poured her soul into that letter, and while she wrote the trio of paper frogs Doctor Turner had given her sat silent sentinel beside her, lined up in a row on the edge of the table and reminding her each time she looked at them that there was a man out there, somewhere, who might just be the one to change her life forever.
2 June 1958
My dear friend,
I realize it's been barely five days since I sent my last letter, and even if you have received it you no doubt have not had time to respond. Perhaps it seems a bit hasty, my writing to you again so soon, but the truth is I do not do it for my own sake. Timothy has a question, you see. He discovered the enclosed butterfly - poor fellow - on our windowsill, and is terribly curious to discover what befell the little creature. I must confess it is not my area of expertise, and so Timothy insisted we send it to you for diagnosis, as - and I quote here - "Sister Bernadette is a nurse and she's very clever. She might know what happened." I could hardly tell him no, though I don't expect you to have become an entomologist in the week since you've left us.
Which brings me to another point - Timothy misses you dearly, Sister. I have told him only that you have gone to Chichester, to the home of your Order, and whether you will return to Poplar remains to be seen. I - somewhat selfishly, perhaps - have not told him the reason for your going. He is only a boy, and unused to the complications we adults bring to the world. And, to be quite honest, I don't know what to tell him. Shall I tell him that I have quite fallen in love with you? How shall I explain that love is not always convenient, or welcome? He was weaned on stories, as are most children born into happy homes, and so he believes that love is always good, always reciprocated, always blessed. I do not wish to disabuse him of these notions just yet.
I do not wish to disabuse myself of them, either, for now I live in hope, that I might soon receive a letter from you, and in the receiving of it learn what it is you want for your future. And I hope, most fervently, that I can be the one to give it to you.
I remain yours, faithfully,
10 June 1958
Dear Sister Bernadette,
Today is Tuesday, and I have just come from the antenatal clinic. Everyone is carrying on here in much the same fashion as always, but I must confess I find myself made anxious by a conversation I had today. Nurse Franklin - that dear, bubbly girl - told me that Sister Julienne had received a letter from you. Though I cannot say how, she seems to know the reason for your leaving - there was an understanding look in her eye, and a compassionate tone to her words I have not often seen from her. I think she knew that I would want to hear news of you, and wished to break it to me gently.
She tells me that your letter reports that you are doing well and that the Mother House has been a place of restoration for you. For that I am grateful; when last I saw your face you were weeping, and I would give anything to see you smile again. I am glad that you have taken the time to reassure those that love you best that you are well, but I must confess I am somewhat - dismayed? Concerned? Worried? Anxious, perhaps - that I have not yet heard from you. I have told you plainly what it is I want, and I fear that perhaps in the telling I have offended or upset you. It grieves me to think that any action of my own could have caused you hurt; please, tell me what it is you need of me, so that I can give it to you. Even if our continued separation is your desire, even if you wish to never see me again, please tell me, so that I can respect your wishes. I'll not write to you again, if that is what you desire.
But I don't know what is is you desire, you see, and therein lies my problem. If it's convincing you need, let me convince you. If it is silence you need, let me be still, and patient. But which? And how? I do not know which course to take, and I am lost, without you.
I remain yours, faithfully,
17 June 1958
Dear Sister Bernadette,
Another Tuesday, another clinic, made strangely mournful by your absence. It has been more than three weeks now, since you left us, and while it seems that the Nonnatuns are kept informed of your activities in seclusion I have not yet heard from you, and in your silence I fear I may have found my answer. And yet, I live in hope; someone told me, once, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I think you would hear those words, and use them to prod on my lack of faith in God, perhaps; can I prove he does not exist, just because I did not see him when I most needed him? I can almost hear you saying those words; perhaps hope has driven me mad.
In any case, I am choosing to believe that the absence of evidence proving your regard for me does not mean that such regard does not exist. I cannot believe, for one moment, that if you felt nothing at all for me you would have allowed us to draw as close as we did. You are a strong woman, and clever, and I believe - I have to believe - that if you did not wish to receive my affections you would have rebuffed me long ago.
I find myself thinking, now, of that warm day in May, that day when you and I went to aid that poor girl who was beyond our help. I remember your grief, as you realized that mother and baby were both lost; and lost not to illness or the unforeseen complications of pregnancy, but to the violence inflicted upon her by the man who should have loved her most. I have often wondered what you thought of that, that this man who had been gifted things you yourself could never have - love, marriage, a child - could treat them so viciously, with such disdain. I have often wondered, in these last few weeks, what midwifery has taught you of marriage, whether it has put you off the proposition altogether. I can certainly understand if it has; a midwife sees just as much bad as good.
I fear I've wandered off topic. The point is this, that I find myself thinking of that afternoon, and the way you trembled in your grief. I find myself thinking of that moment in my office, and how all I wanted was to hold you, to comfort you, to tell you most earnestly that love should not ever be accompanied by a fist. I find myself thinking what a joy it was, what a gift, that you allowed me to hold you; I felt, in that moment, as if the pieces of my heart had slotted into place, as if the broken parts of me were mended, however briefly, by the warmth and goodness of you. I find myself wondering if it was what you wanted, or if you wished I hadn't done it; it remains a beautiful memory, and I would hate to think that something which brought me such comfort caused you pain.
I asked you, that day, not to hide from me. If the Order dictates that you must give up your individuality and your desires, if you must hide yourself from them, so be it. But please, please do not hide yourself from me. Let me be a refuge for you, let me bring you comfort. Let us work through this problem together. You do not have to be alone, if you do not wish it. I promise you, my dearest one, that if you wish to come home to me I shall give to you everything that I have, all of myself. If you need a hand to hold, let it be mine. If you need ears to hear you, let them be mine. If you need a shoulder to bear your burdens, let it be mine. If you need lips to kiss you, please, let them be mine.
I remain yours, faithfully,
21 June 1958
Dear Sister Bernadette,
I am beginning to wonder whether these letters are reaching you at all, but I must admit with Nurse Franklin's assistance - and a bit of obfuscation as to my true purpose on my part, for which I beg forgiveness - I was able to confirm that I have the correct address.
It's been nearly a month, now, that you've been gone. Sister Julienne told me it might take as long as this, for you to reach your decision. I am the first to admit that I do not have the patience of a saint, as do you and your sisters, and these weeks have been a lesson in patience for me. I have said that I will wait, that I will do as you bid me, and in the absence of marching orders from you I can do no more than this, write to you and wait.
It was my birthday, today. Fifty-one years old; it is a gloomy sort of milestone. The day was far more festive, last year. I recall your smiling face, the gifts you gave me, the way you and your sisters welcomed me into your home, and I must tell you, I am so grateful to you for your kindness. I had worried, when I first came to Poplar, that perhaps I'd made the wrong choice. I've left the days of my youth behind me, and Timothy had enjoyed a rather more comfortable upbringing. But Poplar called to me; it is the place of my birth, and so I suppose in a way it shall always be my home. That's how it goes, isn't it? We cannot ever truly separate ourselves from our beginnings. Where did you get your start in life? What is the name of the village where you grew up? Your parents' names? The name they gave you? I have so many questions to ask you, and I long with all of myself to know the answer.
I wonder if perhaps you doubt the sincerity of my affections. I am an old man in comparison to you, who are still young and lovely. I had a wife, once, and have a child to raise. I know what this must look like, my chasing after you. And though I wished to look into your eyes when I said these words I fear I shall not ever have the chance, and so I must take the opportunity to speak them to you now in the only way that I can.
Yes, I have known love before. Real love, true love, I'll not deny it. I love her still, and will love her always. But the human heart is limitless in its capacity for love. Loving once does not mean we cannot love again. And it is love I feel for you. I know it, because I have felt it before; oh, each love, each person, is different, but the force of it, the vibrancy of it, the undeniability of it remains the same. I want to know your dreams, your thoughts, want to laugh with you, speak with you, dance with you, always. My mind is besieged by thoughts of you, my heart overcome with a desire to bring you joy, to see you shine. There is so much I don't know about you but I want to learn it all, and to share myself with you, until we are as familiar to one another as our own hands. I feel incomplete, without you here. Timothy and I can manage quite well on our own, but we do not wish to be alone, you see - we wish to be with you.
And yes, I shall say it now as I've come to suspect I've nothing left to lose, I want to hold you. I want to touch you. You remain as distant and sacred to me as the saints you venerate, a goddess, an icon not to be sullied by the hands of man, but I want to reach out and touch you. I want to kiss you, to run my fingers through your hair, to see you as no one else has ever done, or ever will. I want you to be safe and at home in my arms, and in my bed. I want you beside me in the darkness. I want to come to know every inch of you, to see you tremble with pleasure, to hear your voice cry out for me - I want you, in every way a man can want a woman. I want you, and without you I am bereft, aching and lost.
It is my birthday today, and I have spent it with the Nonnatuns - for they have welcomed me, and that is down to you, I think - but all I want, all I need, is you.
Please, my darling, please. Write to me. Give me some word, some sign, some news. Anything.
I remain yours, faithfully,
1 July 1958
Over a month, now, Sister Bernadette had spent in this half-seclusion in Chichester, praying and searching for guidance, trying to determine what it was she wanted most for her future. In the beginning she had felt as if those answers might never come to her; the only voice she heard in the stillness was her own heart, crying out for her Doctor, for her home, for peace. No great revelation came to her, no lightning strike moment when everything fell into place, when the heavens rolled back and the path before her was bathed in sparkling sunlight.
That was not to say that the answer had never come, only that it had not come all at once, or in the manner she was expecting.
Sometime in early June Sister Bernadette made a bargain with herself. She had exchanged letters with Sister Julienne, but no word had come to her from anyone else. If Doctor writes to me, she'd decided, if he reaches out to me, then I will know he is thinking of me, and that he is where I belong. If he asks me to come home to him, I will. Somehow establishing a course of action for herself eased her burdens; she knew what she would do, should she receive a letter from him, and in the beginning she believed, truly, that one day she might. He was a good man, a kind man, a man whose heart was full of love and compassion, and she could not imagine that he would abandon her to this exile, and think of her no more. All she had to do, then, was wait.
The time passed, and she filled it with prayer, and the quiet, humble work of the Mother House. Though she was still excluded from much of their daily activities she joined her sisters for lauds and for compline, took tea with them and stopped to chat with anyone she encountered during her afternoon walks through the garden. In those quiet conversations she found another answer, one she had not been looking for but which strengthened her resolve nonetheless. The sisters who lived here in the Mother House were devout and devoted, unquestioning in their commitment to their cause. They did not go out among the community, did not meet their neighbors in their homes, and knew very little of the world outside their front door. And in their isolation they remained content, and untested, and Sister Bernadette began to feel more pity than camaraderie for them.
There was so much more to life than this, she thought, than prayer and silence and the preservation of ancient traditions. The world was full of people who needed help, who needed care, who had not ever encountered the mercy of God, and Sister Bernadette was beginning to think that this was not the way to reach them. She did not want to hide, safe and secure, sheltered by the warmth of the Order, when there was work to be done just down the road. She wanted, very much, to leave this place.
She wanted to leave, but where then could she go? Back home in Poplar the sisters were of an earthier, more practical sort. The work they did was holy and blessed, and Sister Bernadette loved it. But they were confined, always, by the rules of the Order. There were things they could not do, help they could not give, and their choices were not their own. That lack of freedom, that vow of obedience; Sister Bernadette was beginning to suspect that she could not, in good conscience, maintain it any longer. Had they known about what was happening inside her heart the Order would never have allowed her all those quiet moments alone with Doctor Turner, and if she had not been permitted to speak to him openly, honestly, would he have ever said to her you are the first thing that's ever made me wonder if perhaps God is real, after all? How could she share her faith, if the Order kept her removed from those who most needed it? How could she serve God as she saw fit, if the Order bound her hands?
In the world, and not of the world, that was what the Sisters were meant to be; they were meant to go out among their neighbors, and yet remain, always, set apart. And that separation, that distance, had of late grown into a chasm, as the culture of the world changed and the Sisters remained locked in stasis. We must change with them, she thought now; perhaps not in the same way, but we cannot help them if we do not understand them. But change was not within the Order's remit, and faced with all of this, her concerns about the future of the Order's role in the world, her desire to help her neighbors, her longing with freedom, Sister Bernadette had very nearly come to her decision. Her desire to leave was fast outpacing the call she'd once felt to stay in this place.
She wanted to leave, but the road that led away from Chichester was cloaked in darkness, and she did not know if she could take it. No letter had come from Doctor, and as each day passed without word from him she became less certain that any letter was coming at all. The thought of leaving the Order, taking her life in her hands and returning to Poplar only to find that he did not wish to marry her at all, was bitter and inescapable. If Doctor would not have her she could not stay in that place that had been her home; she could not bear the humiliation of it, all those people who once revered her whispering whenever she passed, and she could not imagine what she would do with herself. Midwifery was her calling, but could she stand to move into Nonnatus House, not as a nun but as a nurse? The very thought of what Sister Evangelina might say was nearly enough to bring her to tears.
No, if Doctor did not want her she could not return to Poplar. She would be cast out into the world, without family, without friends, without a home. In time she could find her own way, perhaps; she had skills and experience, and surely there were other towns, other hospitals, in need of nurses. But she did not know how the world worked, how she would find a place to live or clothes to wear or how to make new friends, and she feared for herself, should she be so utterly cast adrift. Would that be her punishment for the willful, selfish desires of her heart? If she let her pride carry her away from the security of Order, would she find herself abandoned, forever alone as penance for her sins? Was that the choice, then, to follow God and remain with the Order, or to spurn him and in so doing remain forever beyond the reach of his love?
If only Doctor would write to her. It would make things so much easier, if she knew that he was waiting for her. It would be like a sign, she thought, a gift from God himself, telling her that she was making the right choice. In the absence of direction from him doubt festered, and so on this fine sunny Tuesday, when her thoughts were consumed with him, when he would be at clinic tending to the mothers and babies of Poplar as Sister Bernadette dearly longed to do herself, she sat down and began to pen a letter to him. She had waited long enough for him to come to her; perhaps the time had come, she thought, when she ought to reach out to him.
1 July 1958
The day had been a busy one; rounds in the morning - and rounds always took longer than planned, no matter how hard he tried to keep to a schedule - and a hasty sandwich for lunch, wolfed down in his car as he drove back to the surgery. A few hours there, then off to the clinic, then home to see to Tim for a moment before he went back out for his evening rounds, to call in on some of his most vulnerable patients. Darkness had fallen and sorrow had come for him, by the time he pulled his car to a halt in front of the building that housed his surgery and his modest flat.
He ought to go upstairs, and see to Tim. He ought to eat a bite of whatever Mrs. Penny had made for supper and try to organize his schedule for the following day. There was so much left to do, and yet somehow he could not quite find the strength to leave his car. Alone there in the darkness he let his heart overcome his mind, stared unseeing out into the night while his disappointment rose and swelled with him, a wave too vast for him to hold it back any longer.
She had not answered any of his letters. Not the gentle one he'd sent her first, or the second with Tim's request. And certainly not the last one, full of the desperate longings of a man who'd reached the end of his rope. She had not answered him, and that wounded him more than he could say. She knew, now, everything he wanted, everything he dreamed of, how deeply he desired her. She knew, now, that he wanted her to be his wife, that he wanted to love her, to make love to her, share his life with her. She knew these things, and she had not answered him. Surely, he thought, if she wanted the same he would have had some word from her by now. Surely, he thought, if she wanted to come home she would have done so already.
She's made up her mind, and she wants no part of you, a terrible voice whispered in the back of his mind. Give her up, for she has given up on you already.
So great was his sorrow, his distress, that he might well have shed a tear, but in the next breath someone opened the back door of the car, and he turned his head to see Timothy clambering into the seat behind him.
"You ought to be asleep," Patrick told him gently. In truth, he was relieved to see his son; nothing in his life brought him such joy as Timothy did. He was the best parts of both of them, Patrick and Marianne, tied up in one delightful package, and Patrick loved that boy more than he loved his own life. Nothing else could make him smile, now, but just the sight of Tim's face had the corners of his lips turning up in a moment.
"Are you sad, Dad?" Timothy asked him, crossing his little arms across the seatback in front of him. The question left Patrick dismayed; he had hoped, before now, that his attempts at keeping up a cheerful facade had been sufficient to shield Tim from the very grownup heartbreak that had fallen upon him. The last thing he wanted to do was explain all of this to Tim; the boy still believed in happy endings, and Patrick did not want to take that belief from him.
"How could I be sad when I've got you?" he answered. That was the only way forward for him, he knew, to put aside thoughts of love and focus on his son, to try to be the best father he could be, and leave thoughts of being a husband once more far behind him. Sister Bernadette had left him but Timothy was still here, and Timothy needed him.
"Granny Parker said you used to just sit in the car after Mummy died, like a sheepdog without his sheep."
"Did she?" Of course she had; Marianne's mother was a good woman, on the whole, but she talked constantly, about everything and everyone, and while Patrick knew that whatever she'd said had not been meant as judgment he wished she'd exercised a little more caution where Tim was concerned. He did not want Timothy to know about the moments of darkness he'd experienced after Marianne's death, when he'd been so crippled by grief that he could not move. A sheepdog without his sheep; it was an apt metaphor, he thought. Marianne had given him a family, a purpose, had given him direction for his energy and his enthusiasm. Without her he had been lost, utterly lost, had not known where to go or what to do.
"Are you sad because Sister Bernadette has gone away?"
From the mouth of babes, Patrick thought grimly. Timothy was so young, but he was a clever boy, and he had made the connection all on his own. Yes, Patrick had sat paralyzed by grief after Marianne died and he was doing much the same now, now that she had left him, too, not dead but beyond his reach just the same.
"Tim-" he would have to explain himself, somehow, and yet Timothy did not give him the chance, for in the next moment the boy reached into his pocket, and withdrew a small packet of letters, tied together with string.
"This came for you today," Tim said, handing the letters over.
Patrick's hands were trembling as he took them. No wonder Tim had asked after Sister Bernadette; he untied the string, and found that this little packet contained every letter he had ever sent to her, addressed to her in his somewhat hasty scrawl, each one of them unopened. She had not read them, not a single one of them, and that realization crashed into him with a stupendous force. Had she turned her heart against him already? Would the letters sway her, if only she had the chance to read them? Or was it too late; had the time come for him to abandon all hope?
"Why didn't she read your letters?"
Christ, I wish I knew the answer, he thought. It seemed an act of cruelty, to ignore him so completely, to cast his words back in his teeth without consideration. And yet he could not believe that she was capable of such cruelty, for she had always seemed to him to be gentle, and good, had always treated him so warmly. This is a mystery I can't solve tonight, he told himself; he had Tim to think about, and he could not bear any more sorrow. So he began to stack the letters together once again, and as he did a small note fluttered out from between the pages. He caught hold of it with trembling hands, and read it in a moment.
Dear Doctor Turner,
Sister Bernadette is in seclusion, and as such it is not appropriate that you bombard her with correspondence. This a decision that Sister Bernadette much reach with the guidance of the Lord, and without your meddling. Please do not send another letter. She will not receive it in any case. I ask that you respect our ways, even if you do not respect our vows.
From the Order of Saint Raymond Nonnatus
The words that came spilling out of Patrick Turner's mouth just then would have made a sailor blush.
"Dad!" Timothy sounded almost impressed with his fluent vulgarity, but Patrick hardly heard him over the roar of his heart. Of course she was not capable of such cruelty, but it seemed at least one of her sisters was; they had kept her from him, and he could not allow this enforced separation to continue. She had to read his letters; she must. He had to see her, had to hear her voice; damn their rules, damn their pride, damn their traditions. It was not fair, was not just, that she should be kept alone and isolated without even these letters to reassure her that he still wanted her. What she must think of him! All these weeks, she'd not heard a word from him; did she think he'd sent nothing at all?
This will not stand.
His hands itched to reach for the keys, desperate to go to her, to press the letters into her hands, to tell her outright how much he loved her, how much he wanted her to come home. And perhaps he would have driven out that very moment, were it not already too late to undertake such a journey, were Timothy not sitting in the backseat of the car. Tomorrow, he told himself, wrapping those letters in his hands. As soon as it's light.
"Dad?" Timothy's voice was small and afraid, and Patrick berated himself for his outburst, for not thinking of how this must all look to his son.
"Let's go and see if Mrs. Penny left anything for dessert, shall we?" Patrick said tightly. He would have to explain all of this to Tim, and soon. He had never been in the habit of lying to Timothy, and he did not intend to start now. But Sister Bernadette had not received his letters, and he would have to correct that mistake before he could do anything else. Once I've seen her, he thought, then I can talk to Tim, and tell him what's happening. Once I've seen for myself if she's happy, if she still wants to be with us. Tomorrow.
After all these weeks of waiting he at last had some purpose, and that purpose filled him, holy and righteous. He would go to her tomorrow, and put an end to all this doubt.
2 July 1958
Best laid plans, Patrick thought ruefully as he drew his car to a halt in front of the convent. He had intended to leave at first light, but Tim was out of school and he had morning rounds that simply could not wait, and of course that had taken longer than he'd intended, and he'd driven back to the surgery to hang a sign that would alert his patients to his absence, only to be waylaid by an arthritic patient in dire need of assistance, and so it was nearly 4:00 in the afternoon by the time he reached Chichester. All day his mind had been awash with thoughts of her, his soul full of anger at the thought that her own sisters had hidden his letters, kept him from her, and his heart was consumed by questions. Would he be able to see her, to speak to her? What could he possibly say to the sisters that would convince them to allow him entry? And what would he say to her? Would the letters convince her, would she be happy to receive them, to receive him, would she turn him away with her head bowed, her heart still dedicated to her most holy purpose?
He did not know, but the time had come when all those questions would soon be answered. The Mother House of the Order of Saint Raymond Nonnatus loomed above him, a vast, hulking brute of a building, and in the blank windows that stared out at him Patrick almost felt as if the building itself were frowning at him, disapproving of his intent to spirit away one of its beloved daughters. Just let them try and stop me, he thought, and in the next moment he had stepped from the car, was marching smartly up the front walk with the packet of unread letters in his jacket pocket. Whatever it took, no matter what obstacle stood in his path, he remained determined to put those letters in her hands.
As he reached the front door Patrick gave three sharp knocks, and then stood back, waiting. Perhaps he should have prepared some sort of speech, some sort of introduction for himself, some way to explain his presence here at their front door, but his thoughts were too jumbled, spilling over one another, each one giving life to a dozen more until he could hardly hear over the noise in his own head. His heart pounded in his chest, chaotic and eager, his hands trembling from restless agitation. There was no way to know where she was, even now, which room in this monstrous cathedral she might occupy, or how he was to reach her if they remained determined to turn him away. Perhaps, he thought, the nun who opened the door would be young and kind, and on his side.
But then the door swung wide, and as he got a good look at the woman on the other side he realized at once that she was not. Her face was wrinkled with age, her mouth pinched and disapproving, her eyes sharp as a hawk's and just as compassionate, which is to say, not at all. Just the sight of her disgruntled expression made his heart sink in his chest.
"Can I help you?" she asked him in a tone of voice that seemed to indicate that she did not appreciate his interrupting her afternoon.
"I've come to see Sister Bernadette," he answered, stepping up towards her. Over the nun's shoulder he could see the foyer, a bit dim and cluttered though the sound of children's voice lent a certain warmth to the darkness. A staircase stood at the far end, leading up into shadows, and Patrick could not say from whence those voices came, but he was comforted by their happy tones, nonetheless. She might have been in seclusion, but a part of his heart hoped, for her sake, that she was allowed time with the children, to play with them and feed them their supper, that her heart might be allowed some small piece of joy.
"You'd be Doctor Turner, then," the old nun said, crossing her arms over her chest. She shifted her feet, changing her stance so that she seemed almost to take up the entire doorway, as if she intended to bar his entry, and all at once he realized who she was, who she must have been.
"And you're Sister Ursula," he said with a sigh, running a weary hand over his face. It was the worst of luck, that he should find himself face to face with the very woman who had tried so hard to keep him from his beloved, who had orchestrated their enforced separation. It was wrong to hate anyone, Patrick believed, most of all a nun, but oh, in that moment he hated her with everything he had.
"As I said in my letter, Sister Bernadette is in seclusion. Your presence here is most inappropriate. I must ask you to leave."
"Please, Sister," Patrick began to beg, knowing that all hope was lost and yet carrying on anyway, for the sake of the love he bore his Bernadette, "she needs to read these letters. How can she make her choice when-"
"It is not your place to manipulate her with your clever words, Doctor," Sister Ursula told him curtly. "She knows what you would have of her. Now she must see what it is the Lord wants. And if you loved her, truly, you would not have put her in this position."
Patrick recoiled from the woman as if he'd been slapped; how dare she, he thought, how dare she say such things to me, but then almost immediately, another voice seemed to whisper to him, what if she's right, what if you've been cruel, to force Bernadette to make this choice?
For a moment he simply hung his head, hopeless and desperate; he had been so sure of his purpose in coming here, but she was likewise sure in her determination to keep him away, and he had no idea what might happen next, how he might salvage the mess he'd made. But fate, or God himself, must have been on his side, for before he could speak a single word a beautiful, familiar voice cried out from somewhere in the darkness behind Sister Ursula.
Patrick's head snapped up sharply, and there she was, his Bernadette, rushing down the stairs towards him, confusion written all over her face. Sister Ursula turned to look at her, no doubt intending to admonish her and send her away, and so Patrick seized his chance; he bulled straight past the old nun, pushing her aside with his own bulk, and while she sputtered and tried to regain her footing he ran to the foot of the stairs where Sister Bernadette was waiting for him.
"Oh, my love," the words came rushing out of his mouth before he could stop them, his hands reaching for hers in an instant. A gasp of surprise escaped her, but she did not pull away; she stood a step or two above him, taller than him for the first time in their acquaintance, her eyes bright with unshed tears and locked, unblinking upon his face. And oh, but she was every bit as beautiful as he remembered, small and delicate and lovely, her features written upon his very soul. Her hands trembled in his own, but her fingers laced through his as if she ached, even as he did, for comfort, for warmth, for the chance to simply hold on to one another. That she should reach for him, too, that she should allow him to throw all propriety out the window, seemed to him to be a blessing, and he clung to her, his eyes searching her face. This was the woman he had come to love, the woman he meant to make his wife; she was everything to him, beautiful and gentle and strong, and he was left daze overwhelmed by her very presence. He had been too long without her, as he never wished to be again.
"I've been so worried about you," she told him breathlessly. He had wondered, before now, whether the prolonged silence would have troubled her, and knowing that it did, knowing that she cared enough for him to worry about him, knowing that he held in his pocket the balm that would soothe those hurts, lifted his spirits enormously. If she worried for him, then she had been thinking of him, as he had of her; if she worried for him, then there was still hope.
"I am going to fetch Mother Jesu Emmanuel and you are going to leave this place, Doctor Turner, if I have to drag you out by your ear!" Sister Ursula called from behind them, and then she was racing away, and Patrick was relieved, for in her departure she had allowed him the gift of a few precious moments spent alone with his beloved.
"Thank God for that," Patrick said as she departed, and Sister Bernadette laughed, the soft, damp sound of it reminding him of his purpose. Perhaps it was sacrilegious, to thank God for the departure of their only chaperone when Patrick stood intent on stealing Sister Bernadette away from her holy calling, but he was so bloody grateful he could not hide it, and she was not admonishing him.
"I hoped you'd write to me," Sister Bernadette told him, still looking down on him in wonder, as if she could hardly believe he was real. She had hoped, just as he had hoped; his heart sang in his chest, and it took every ounce of restraint he possessed to keep from gathering her in his arms and kissing her in his joy and his relief. "Every day, I hoped I'd hear from you, but-"
"I did," Patrick cut her off, reaching into his pocket to retrieve the letters. "I wrote to you, I did, but Sister Ursula kept the letters from you. Please, please take them," he pushed them into her hands, their fingers sliding together, warm and full of life, full of love, full of hope. Her left hand wrapped around the letters, clutched them tight to her chest, but with the right still she held him fiercely, as if she felt, even as he did, that she never wanted to let him go. Seeing her, touching her, hearing her voice, he felt as if he were breaking in two; he wanted to wrap his arms around her and carry her bodily from that place, take her home, take her to bed, hide with her from the cruelty of the world for the rest of his life, but he knew her choice was not yet made, and he must wait a while longer. For now, just for this moment, he could hold her hand, and that would have to be enough.
"How could she have done such a thing?" Sister Bernadette asked, her voice almost as angry as it was sad, while still her eyes drank in the sight of him. "She made me think you'd forgotten me." Patrick could imagine nothing worse, and as the tears began to spill from Sister Bernadette's glorious eyes he saw how that thought had wounded her, and took hope from the knowledge that she did not want to be forgotten. "I thought you didn't want-"
"I want you," he answered breathlessly, stepping up close so that he could lift his hand and brush the tears from her cheeks with his thumb. Her skin was soft and smooth as silk beneath his touch, and she did not shy away from him, only pressed herself against his hand and burned him alive with the heat of her gaze. "With everything I have, I want you," he told her earnestly, and he could feel the way she responded to his words, swayed towards him, her lips parted as if were to he kiss her now she would accept him. "Please, read the letters, I-"
"Doctor Turner!" An angry voice bellowed from behind him, and he started at the sound, knowing that his time was through. What sort of man gets himself thrown out of a convent? He thought wryly.
"I wish we had more time," he said, still gently cradling her perfect face in his palm. "Please, read the letters. Write to me, ring me, just please, let me know your answer. I'll come back, if I need to. I will not abandon you."
"I will read them," she promised him, "and I will answer, I will. I just need-"
"Doctor Turner, you will leave this place at once or the police will be called!" Sister Ursula barked at him then, and he knew that he needed to leave, and quickly, but he had not yet said all he'd meant to say.
"Please," he said to Sister Bernadette, already preparing himself for the agony of leaving her. "Come home to me. I will be waiting for you." And then, before anyone could stop it, he raised himself up and kissed her cheek, once, softly. The sound of Sister Ursula's outraged shriek echoed like gunfire in his ears, but Sister Bernadette's smile was soft, and full of wonder. It took all the strength he had to turn away from her then, but he did, turned and all but ran out the door before Sister Ursula could make good on her threats. He had done what he'd come here to do, had seen for himself that Sister Bernadette had not given up on him, had pressed his letters into her welcoming hands, had kissed her as best he could in the moment. It was enough; it had to be. She held all the cards, now, and there was nothing left for him to do but wait.